- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2006

A curious and arguably not too wholesome development is the tracking of children electronically through their cell phones. Services being promoted by major companies promise parents the power to locate their children in any place, at any time.

From TechNewsWorld online: “Several companies, including Sprint Nextel and Disney, recently announced plans to offer wireless services to help parents track their kids’ whereabouts using GPS (Global Positioning System) technology.

“The two companies are using the same name for their services — ‘Family Locator’ — but the only other thing they have in common is the use of Sprint’s wireless network. Last week, Verizon Wireless also announced plans to offer a location-based service (LBS) called ‘Chaperone.’”

The services differ in their details. Verizon, for example, allows parents to put boundaries around a geographic area. When the child crosses the boundary, the service automatically sends the parent a text message. Or you can check online and get the child’s position displayed on a street map.

No more sneaking off from the movies to a party somewhere. Children would know that the eye was always on them.

Note that from a technical standpoint, this tracking is easy, and could be greatly extended with comparatively minor changes of hardware and software.

A phone could record the child’s path all day and silently transmit it to parents at intervals. It could keep a record of who the child called and was called by. It could record calls to numbers designated by the parent. On command, it could turn on its microphone to let parents listen in to the child’s conversation with friends. For that matter, a little computerized cross-checking could tell parents who the young’un was with.

I don’t suggest that anyone yet has these latter applications in mind, but they raise a question: In a world in which it becomes daily easier to track, watch, record, and photograph people, how far do we want to go?

Detailed sleepless surveillance appears to be another step in the substitution of technology for morality and, in this case, responsible parenthood.

Instead of teaching your children to behave, you watch them electronically. It amounts to replacing internal discipline with external. A well-raised child behaves well (within limits) because he has learned that it is the right thing to do. What do the electronically tethered learn, other than to resent their parents?

The matter of spying on children is a subset of the issue of how tightly we really want rules and laws to be enforced. At 3 a.m., Interstate 95 is relatively empty and straight, and you crank it up to 80 miles an hour. Do you want to get a ticket for speeding or reckless driving from sensors along the road? (These exist in some places.) Or do you want to be left alone when speed doesn’t endanger others?

The system might make for better remote management of latchkey children, but it will change the nature of childhood and particularly of adolescence. Teenagers are breaking away from their parents, as they should.

They lie a bit to their parents, go where they aren’t supposed to, do what they shouldn’t, and revel in it. If they’ve been raised well, they don’t push too far. It has always been part of growing up.

What will it be like if their parents always know whose house they are in, where they are? So much for learning to handle freedom. Sez me, they might as well be 2-year-olds. Maybe there is such a thing as too much technology.

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