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Stalker Apps, Saviour Apps and Kids’ Privacy
October 17, 2014
Back in my tween days, my wonderful yet curious mum wanted to read my diary. She didn’t in the end – something along the lines of “rights to privacy and independence” and my dad believing in them. On another occasion, I must have been around 12, I ran into a friend after my piano lesson, decided to spend some time with her and didn’t call home to let the family know. I didn’t have a mobile phone and I just wasn’t thinking that they would be worried. I was very wrong. They were. I eventually got home, got very memorably told off and learned some important lessons.
The reason I am sharing this is because I am intrigued by the emergence of apps and accessories created to help parents monitor or track their children as well as ensure they stay in touch – something that could have been useful in the situation above. These apps sit on a scale between simple tracking apps to more specific solutions such as “Ignore No More”, an app which locks a child’s phone if they fail to answer a parent’s call. This app was the latest to get a round of industry press, a lot of which was quite black and white. Parents attitudes were even more so, with comments such as “trust is good but sometimes you just need to *know* they are ok” vs “some people are obsessive control freaks – I always find it’s best to avoid them. Pity kids with such parents“. Each side was harsher than the other, each side was judging the others’ parenting abilities. (N.B. Comments taken from this article in Guardian, do browse for more of the same kind)
Since wearable tech and, generally, the ability to quantify existence are increasingly important trends in lives of kids and grown-ups alike, I wanted to share my perspective on this. And just to make things clear, this article is not about situations when a child is four or five – in those years parents tend to stay close anyway. I think things get very interesting as kids grow up a bit, and enter adolescence…
A “crime” against development?
As kids grow up they have a need to separate and individuate, and part of that is forming boundaries from parents. This involves keeping secrets from them and yes, some privacy. It involves parents not knowing all the details of what kids are doing, all the while hoping deep inside that they are up to good things. Too much protection, too much interference – and we put this important development process in danger, as simple as that. Not letting your kids explore and cross the boundaries, assess risks and sometimes even get in trouble is essentially not good for them. To grow, they need a sense of making their own decisions and a sense of privacy that, arguably, these apps can hinder.
Secondly, a lot of monitoring apps are pitched with kids’ protection in mind – we live in dangerous times is not something you rarely hear. Parents are more protective than ever, more protective than their parents were to them just a generation ago. As an example, though relevant to younger kids: 86% of primary school pupils walked to school alone in 1971, compared to 25% in 2013 and probably even fewer nowadays. But in its basic sense the world is not a more dangerous place now compared to what it was earlier, at least not in the ways we tend to think.
At the very worst end of a parent’s nightmare are the disasters such as children abduction or murder, however kids still have about the same (very slim) chance of being abducted by a stranger now compared to a generation ago. On average, 11 children are killed in the UK every year, a figure that has not increased since the 1970s. Even one child is a child too many, but the news-stories will often have us believe that this happens every day, all the time. Looking at abductions, over four fifths are by a perpetrator known to the victim, most likely to be a parent. A child from a happy family who goes out to spend some time with friends and never comes home is still a singular tragedy, not a national epidemic. Moving further along the dangerous times spectrum is the danger of road safety, but here as well, traffic accidents involving a victim under 17 years old are on a decreasing trend, and were 41% lower in 2013 than in 2006 (Dept of Transport). So on a perfectly rational level, the danger is relatively low and, extending that logic, is the need for protective apps on the very same level?
I am also puzzled by the ethics of monitoring, or phone-blocking apps. Not a conspiracy theorist by any stretch of imagination, but I wonder where is the end. Would micro-chipping children and grown-ups be acceptable? Do children have a say at who owns and sees their data, and if so, at what age their say begins? Where are the limits, and who will impose them?
Finally, and taking the thinking away from big-scale development, safety and ethical questions, one of the better-known and more recent apps in this space advertises by saying it is providing a tool for parents to avoid conversations such as:
“Do not ignore my calls.” (concerned parent)
“Or what?” (a child who clearly believes it is ok not to call)
But if this is how a child is generally talking to a parent, is an app that coerces them into “submission” the best approach? Are we missing the bigger issue here?
A piece of mind and a helping hand
Having said all that, I can empathise with a concerned parent and the depth of both love and responsibility that comes with having children. I must put my hand up and say that I do not have any children myself, which on one hands affords me a greater level of rationality when it comes to these issues, but on the other means that whilst I may try to imagine the strength of emotions involved I don’t feel them myself. I don’t know what it’s like. Perhaps if we could think on a perfectly rational level, we could appreciate that the dangers facing kids are not as high as they seem, but who can afford perfect rationality? And even with accepting that the parents’ biggest fears are true only for one in a million cases, for someone who happens to be that one in a million some safeguarding measures could make a difference between a story with a happy ending and a tragedy. Surely, then, the means of tracking and making sure you are in touch with your child can be justifiable?
The parents who support the idea believe that it doesn’t have to be “Big Brother” at all, and isn’t about tracking their kids or pressuring them into calling home but about giving yourself a piece of mind, knowing that you can get in touch, whilst allowing the freedom that kids seek and need. It is something to be used in case things go wrong, or the child is late and can’t be found easily rather than an ongoing surveillance programme for nosy mums and dads. An app could be a tool in a parent’s arsenal and the mere “threat” that it could be used may well be enough of a deterrent to make sure a child calls back or stays within the boundaries of where they said they would be.
These arguments are perfectly reasonable, and – I understand them.
With both sides in mind, I am not aiming to make a generic decision about how right or wrong kids-monitoring solutions are. Ultimately, most things can be right under a certain set of circumstances so a one-sided disdain or approval would be foolish. However, I do believe that people and companies in a position relevant to these apps and kids privacy in general do have a responsibility towards their audience to consider all sides of the story and ensure their solutions answer to them as best they can.
As you make up your mind, I’d ask you to consider this question: is the purpose here the easier “management” of a child and ensuring they do what the parents want, or is it their physical safety? If it is indeed the management, not to say it is not a worthy cause, what kind of guidance can we provide to make sure parents understand the power in their hands, the importance of kids’ independence and the need to let them grow, whilst making their own job simpler? And if it is purely safety and protection from the evils of the world, is there a solution to make sure that kids are not “tracked” unless there is a real danger?
By Jelena Stosic
Image courtesy of Philippa Willits