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"The sky is falling! The sky is falling..."

Updated on December 18, 2009

Are we stalking our children?

Using a variety of modern electronic devices and specialty services, today’s parents are monitoring their children like never before; some with an intensity usually reserved for stalkers.  Despite a lack of evidence that this “spying” actually produces any positive result, parents continue their surveillance and may actually cause more harm than good.  When parents go too far, it might be time to call off the dogs. 

In her article, “Big Brother meets Big Mother,” Ellen Goodman questions this use of technology to monitor children, supports her argument with an ample body of evidence, and suggests that parents consider easing up on the reins.  With no bibliography or links to check her supportive evidence, it is easy for readers to be led down the Yellow Brick Road all the way to OZ.  If, however, the curious reader takes the time to investigate Ms. Goodman’s claims, the trip to the Emerald City may be postponed. 

To show how “Big Mother” is becoming “Big Brother,” Ms. Goodman lists and describes a number of devices and services today’s parents use for “stalking” their children.  There’s a jacket with GPS sewn into the lining, cell phones with GPS, and services that do everything from telling us what our children eat in the cafeteria to how well they do in Math class.  She explains this use, (or overuse), by quoting Danah Boyd who claims, “The culture of fear says that if you are not monitoring, you are a bad parent.  Apparently, we are supposed to be stalking our kids.”  Since I knew nothing of the culture of fear, I did some research on the subject, and I uncovered an apparent contradiction. 

The concept of the culture of fear I uncovered is decidedly different from Boyd’s quote as used by Goodman.  Goodman claims Boyd says, “We are supposed to be stalking our kids,” but Barry Glassner, who wrote about the theory, says, “We compound our worries beyond all reason,” which suggests stalking is excessive.  Despite only having limited knowledge of either opinion, it seems to me the two interpretations are virtually opposite.  Consider that Barry Glassner’s book is entitled, “The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are afraid of the wrong things,” and, in it, he asserts that the phenomenon of misplaced fear is not uncommon in America.  That means he believes many Americans are afraid of the wrong things, and may take their fears too far.  It could be Goodman is one of those Americans. 

Among other characteristics, a culture of fear is identified as created by: 1) Careful selection or distortion of news, 2) Distorted statistics, and 3) Transferring single events into social epidemics.  With just those three characteristics in mind, and applied to her article, Ms. Goodman, herself, fits the mold.  Throughout her argument she seems to be carefully selecting or distorting her research, offering distorted statistics, and attempting to identify an epidemic that may or many not exist.  Further investigation proves the point. 

One of the devices Ms. Goodman uses to support her theory is a jacket from a company called, “Bladerunner,” with a GPS device sewn into the lining.  GPS refers to “Global Positioning System” which uses satellites to track people or objects on Earth.  Ms. Goodman referred to it as, “...the latest bit of high tech surveillance equipment being marketed to parents.”  I went to the website, (http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2007/oct/23/news.crime), and discovered, although the device can be used for surveillance, that was not its primary purpose.  Adrian Davis, a Bladerunner managing partner, points out that the device is not like the ankle bracelets the courts put on convicts, but, instead, is more like the signaling necklaces old folks wear in case they fall and can’t get up.  If a child wearing the jacket while skiing or snowboarding runs into trouble, the device in the jacket can both pinpoint the child’s location and send help.  I also discovered that the “sewn in” device is actually removable and rechargeable, meaning the jacket can be used either with or without the device on board.  Now, Goodman is correct to assert that the device can be used for stalking, but her failure to note that such usage is a limited application makes it appear as if she is “distorting” evidence, and attempting to create “fear”.  Researching the other services Goodman highlights reveals even more distortion.

Specifically, she mentions MyNutrikids, GradeSpeed, IMSafer, and Alltrack.  Goodman claims the Nutrikids service is there to let you know what your kid is eating, but I discovered the service is primarily to allow parents to go online to fund an account to pay for a child’s school lunch without having to worry about lost or stolen lunch money.  Gradespeed, she says, is for “automatic alerts” when grades are posted, but I discovered it is intended more as a virtual grade book that allows teacher, administrator and parent all immediate access to overall class performance, and not just to monitor individual grades.  For monitoring instant messages, IMSafer provides the service 
Goodman mentions, but it also alerts parental figures of any other unusual internet activity, and, in this age of child predation by molesters, that does not sound unreasonable, (Unless, of course, I, too, am being led astray by the culture of fear and distorted statistics).  Finally, the last service, Alltrack, (I actually investigated a similar service called “Teen Tracking”), let’s you know when your child is speeding, which, again, does not sound too objectionable if we choose to believe the accident statistics


Ms. Goodman is not entirely incorrect in her assessments, but it does seem biased when she only reports that portion of her truth that supports her argument.  Why not include the whole truth?  And, if a reader buys into the theory of the culture of fear, how can anyone’s opinion be believed in its entirety, either supportive or contrary?  Thus, even after considering Ms. Goodman’s argument, and investigating the evidence, it still comes down to point of view, and having to decide what to believe.  Is Ms. Goodman’s argument the truth despite the incomplete reporting of information?  Or, are the statistics true and not just intentionally distorted to create fear that can be cashed in on later?  It’s not easy to decide.

With only sketchy evidence, (possibly influenced by her own fears), to support her point of view, Goodman concludes her article by leaving the decision of when to land the Black Helicopters to the parents.  Under those circumstances, I choose the lesser of two evils, citing the mantra that, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  Even if I have to use a pound of prevention, I would rather be the nasty dad with the living, adult daughter, than the nice dad whose daughter died in a car crash in high school.  Kept alive and safe, kids will grow up with plenty of time to mess up their lives on their own, and, as long as I can keep them safe under my watch, I will allow them that opportunity to grow, even if it means allowing Black Helicopters to hover all about.  As for Ms. Goodman, she is certainly entitled to her opinion, and free to make her own choices, but I suggest that if she ever hears Chicken Little crying, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!,” she would do well to look for cover and ask questions later than to rest on her laurels and land under a fallen spy satellite. 

  

 

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