Sunday, April 14, 2013

Big Mother (and Father) Is Watching

Disclaimer:  my children are in college and grad school and are beyond the social media situations that apparently plague today's parents of middle and high school aged children.  Which, of course, doesn't keep me from challenging those parents.

In the Stephen Spielberg movie, Minority Report, the basic conceit, as you will recall, was that police in that modernistic society could find out about a crime before the perpetrator actually committed it and could then stop the crime.

Parents in our modern society may have done those "intent police" one better--they are looking for crimes where there may be no crimes, no thought of crimes.  They are policing their own families, particularly their own children.

The latest craze in parenting is to monitor the telephones and iPads of their impressionable children, demanding to know the passwords of accounts on those devices so that they may see what their children may be up to and to prevent them from getting into problematic situations.  Or to punish them if they have?  I assume that this runs the gamut for the daily check-up to the occasional spot check.  And I get it.  There is no doubt that social media is fraught with peril, perhaps with serious consequences.  And today's parents, like the police in Minority Report, want to nip those potential situations in the bud.  They also come from a perspective where their children's time has been managed by them or by someone else since pre-K or before, so the idea of being a part of every aspect and every nook and cranny of their children's lives is standard practice.

You need to know where I'm coming from.  I'm opposed to the increasing vigilance in our society, the cameras on our streets and the drones in our skies.  I'm opposed to corporations and organizations monitoring their employees' computer in the name of productivity. I'm opposed to students in schools having to pass a drug test before they can qualify for leadership positions.  And now, to see parents borrow from a governmental playbook is something I find quite depressing, no matter how scary the world may be out there.

The prevailing mindset is one of fear.  I can't count how many times I have heard teachers and parents express the technological fear that "I don't know what they're doing on there" in reference to children on work stations, laptops, iPads, smart phones in the back of the classroom or in a part of the house where an adult cannot monitor.  "They can say that they're doing their homework, but they could be doing anything," says the conventional wisdom.  And it is correct, they could be doing anything.  Just like any school child in the history of education who heads to his or her room after supper and closes the door.

The fear, of course, focuses on all of the potential connections to the outside world that a child can reach on an iPad or a phone--Facebook, Twitter, Instragram, Snapchat, and a plethora of others just coming to the forefront.  All are opportunities for children to go too far, in every possible way that that can mean.

When I was in high school, functioning as a sometimes dating, sometimes drinking, sometimes staying out too late, sometimes hanging out with less-than-savory friends, sometimes being extremely stupid in ways that could have life or legal implications, straight-A student, I talked on the telephone most nights, often for hours or more at a time.  It's hard to process those times--one phone number for, in my case, a family of four, and maybe two phones in the entire house as the only satellites to reach anyone who lived at my address.  If someone needed the phone, my mother or father or brother would get on the phone and ask if I could get off.  My parents, who were not particularly permissive, never got on to find out who I was talking to or to suggest that I needed to get off and get busy on my homework.

They trusted me.  When I violated that trust, which I did on one occasion that they knew about, they had to recalibrate and so did I.  I thought that's what families did.  That's what I did with my own.

You, as a modern reader, may be tempted to suggest that those were simpler, safer times, that childhood of mine.  I can't agree.  Drug use was far more prevalent.  Cars were not as safe.  Civil unrest was not unheard of.  Neither were racial confrontations.  The latter two didn't affect us in the suburbs much, but what did affect us, as you ponder the previous paragraph, was the parental inability to know what we, as children, were doing.  If your child didn't call you to tell you about a problem, a change of plans, a dangerous situation, a risk, a heartbreak, a new acquaintance, you couldn't possibly know.

If you can know, should you know?  Should you invade every situation on the off chance that somewhere there is an enemy?  I suppose that is the heart of the matter.  Today's parents have trackers on their children's phones because they can and because that is probably smart.  But it also speaks to a mindset, doesn't it?

There are three things I know to be true, whether they are or not:

1.  Children develop private lives.  They begin to develop them in middle school.  And they need to be allowed to develop them.  It is okay if they choose a friend rather than a parent as a confidant or if they try to figure out a difficult situation by themselves, even if their choices result in failure.  Easier said than done perhaps.
2.  Parents are very good at making other parents feel inadequate.  When word gets out, as I'm sure it does, that other parents are taking Draconian measures to keep track of their children's comings and goings in cyberspace, it is difficult, as a parent, not to endorse and follow those practices.  But be aware that there is a price.  If your child is sullen or resentful, you may have added a reason why that is so beyond the typical teenage outlook.
3. Parents of different generations may trade one worry for another, but the amount of worrying that they do is likely the same (barring wartime or catastrophe, of course).  Which is my way of saying that the social media situation is a threat for sure, but I'm not sure that it is a threat that requires that the trust relationship between parents and children be undermined so overtly to the extent that the communications that result from #1 are no longer private.  By the time a child hits the age of 12 or 14 or whatever is relevant to this conversation, a parent should know what level of trust is appropriate and should not violate that.  Which is the same thing that has been true for centuries of parenting, isn't it?

Admittedly, once again, this is an issue I don't have to deal with.  I know that for these parents, something feels very different.  I do remember, however, the ten straight years when one of both children entered the home each night with both a backpack and a laptop, both loaded with the potential of the entire outside world, and not feeling the need to look into either one of them.  Maybe I should have.


Billy said...

Interesting points. I'd offer a few rebuttals (and a few notes of agreement, some begrudging), but your concluding point seems to suggest that anyone who disagrees with anything you offered must be a violently defensive helicopter parent. Which I must say is a deft (and convenient) way to cut off or dismiss countervailing views, isn't it?

Bob said...

What concluding point are you talking about?