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How Parents Cause Their Kids Psychological Disorders by Surveilling Them via Apps and Gadgets

The Black Mirror has manifested itself in real life through the eerie consequences of using technology excessively or unwisely. Apps that monitor kids, for example, might seem like true bliss for parents anxious about their children’s safety or whereabouts. Unfortunately, the feeling of control these apps provide may grow into an obsession that ruins the child’s and parents’ lives, or at least seriously damage their relationship. Some parents even continue to keep their kids on a tight technological leash after they enter college.

Today, there are tonnes of devices and mobile apps that make it possible for parents to monitor not only their children’s location, but their personal lives as well. Some even allow them to listen in on their private conversations. Take smart watches marketed to parents of 3-year-olds as safety tools. Gizmo, dokiPal, Wizard Watch, and Tic Talk are only a few of the brands promoting their products on US’ $5-billion smartwatch market, which is expected to grow steadily in the years to come. 

Most products offered to overprotective parents include phone call, texting, and pedometer functions, but safety is one of the most catching points. And many parents seem to be falling for it. In a poll by the Pew Research Center, 64% of US parents admitted to looking at the contents of their child’s cell phone, including calls and messages, and 48% used gadgets to control their child’s location. Online reviews from parents echo the watch producers’ enthusiasm, “What a game changer! We can now have peace of mind while the kids are outside playing with their friends, knowing that they are safe and nearby.” “Nowadays you just can’t be too safe!” 

Like a pet on a leash

While parents type enthusiastic comments, many kids feel like they are being deprived of the joys of childhood and adolescence, as well as their basic freedom. Because of this lack of privacy, some children fail to build trusting relationships with their omni-present parents, which can eventually lead to serious psychological problems.

“When I was 12, my parents saw an advertisement for the ‘Where are my children’ app on YouTube and decided to install it,” says Oksana (not her real name) from Moscow. “They said it was for the sake of my safety, so I didn’t mind. But my parents didn’t tell me that the app allowed them to eavesdrop on my conversations.”

Once day, Oksana and her friends were discussing lessons and teachers on their way home from school. “I rarely swear, but that time I couldn’t help but say a couple of bad words,” she confessed. “And I immediately got a text from my mother saying that she was to have a ‘serious talk’ with me.” At home, Oksana’s mother scolded her for swearing, took away her cellphone, read her messages with friends, and deleted her social media accounts. Though Oksana got her phone back some time later, her parents started to monitor her every move and wiretap her conversations. This led to big family fights, and Oksana began to suffer from loneliness and anxiety – she could no longer communicate freely, as she always thought she could be bugged. Two years ago, Oksana was diagnosed with OCD.

‘Where are my children’ is a Russian product that is available in several dozen countries. It has 1.2 million active users worldwide and over 10 million downloads on Google Play. Its creators say the app is intended to help parents whose children go to school or go for walks on their own. Vadikh Giniatulin, the app’s developer, believes that parents who know exactly where their children are will be less likely to call them to ask the annoying question: “Where are you?” Mr. Giniatulin claims the tracker cannot be installed on a child’s phone without his or her consent.

Life360

In 2019, Reddit saw a big discussion around the Life360 app — one of the most popular parental control apps in the world. The app lets users track where their kids or other loved ones are and send each other SOS signals in an emergency. By December 2019, the app had over 27.2 million active users.

A discussion on Reddit broke out with a screenshot of text messages between a college student and his mother entitled “18m in college”.

“Don’t leave campus,” the student’s mother texted him. “Set your Life360 location permissions to ‘Always’ for Life360 to work correctly.”

“That’s what it’s set to,” the young man replied.

“I just got a notification you turned your location off,” his mother insisted. “Turn it back on please.”

The author of the screenshot then explained that he is 18 years old and studies in college. His post got more than 32,000 reactions and about 2,000 comments, making the discussion truly viral for Reddit. Many users said that it is unethical to control the lives of adult children with tracking apps.

Even before the Reddit discussion, TikTok teen users had already turned life with the Life360 app into a meme. A video that teaches teens to alter their phone settings to trick the hated app got more than half a million views. 

Ivy (not her real name), a college freshman, was among those who shared her story in the Reddit discussion. In an interview with The Post, she said that her parents insisted that the app be turned on at all times while she was at college. Otherwise, they would cut off her financial support and she wouldn’t be able to pay tuition. The young woman shared screenshots showing the messages her mother sent her.

“I hear you went to climb a mountain today. I did not see it on Life360,” Ivy’s mother wrote. “I have asked you to carry your phone with you. It looks like you are wanting to begin paying for your own rent, tuition/textbooks, and living expenses.”

“It was supposedly for my safety,” Ivy says, “but I never had the option to refuse.”

Violation of privacy?..

The Reddit discussion quickly became the focus of expert attention. John Caffaro, a professor at the California School of Professional Psychology specializing in family abuse, concluded from the discussion about tracking apps that “many of the Reddit posts appeared to drift perilously close to what normally constitutes emotional abuse.”

Though tracking apps and other parental control technologies might have their upsides, abuse of those technologies can turn out badly for both parents and children. To begin with, extremely intrusive attitudes are likely to destroy trust in child-parent relationships. According to Irina Katin-Yartseva, a children’s clinical psychologist, conflicts based on parental control apps and gadgets stem from a generally unhealthy situation at home.

Sally Beville Hunter, an assistant clinical professor in child and family studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, believes that parents who overuse child surveillance apps start “trusting a device” instead of their children. As a result, children also lose trust in their parents. Instead of freely sharing their concerns and expectations with their parents, they turn into accomplished liars, tricking the surveillance apps and hiding their true thoughts and actions.

Apart from spoiling the family atmosphere, overprotective parental behavior may hamper normal child development.

Dr. Hunter says it’s vital for parents to keep in mind that children’s brains are still developing. If they live under total control, they might not learn to live independently. In particular, they might fail to develop crucial skills, like knowing their location and time management. According to Sally Hunter, if parents don’t let their progeny develop those skills, “the part of their brain that’s supposed to be maturing in a more responsible way has shifted.”

.. or child protection?

This is not to say that smartwatches and tracking apps are a completely bad idea. According to Irina Katin-Yartseva,

there is nothing wrong with tracking applications if they are used only for the sake of safety.

“We all live in different cities and areas,” she says. “There are places where the chances of being attacked are really great.”

Heather Kirkorian, associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that some of the tracking apps’ functions can be especially useful for children with special needs, who require more attention and care than their peers. With such children, even constant tracking might make sense. There are special apps for those purposes, like AngelSense, a special tracker for kids with autism.

If used wisely, tracking might also work with perfectly healthy children. “Whenever I’m talking to parents about using technology, I’m always focused on what the goal is,” Dr. Kirkorian says. In her opinion, If the tracking is temporary and associated with new responsibilities and freedoms, it might be perfectly all right.

Kids whose parents use surveillance apps wisely seem to agree with Kirkorian’s position. In 2020, The New York Times carried out a survey on the issue that yielded some reassuring feedback.

For example, Kaylee Phillips, a high school student from Illinois, USA, wrote:

“Personally, I think that it can be a good thing for parents to track their children. They just want to make sure that their kids are safe. My parents have the ability to track me but don’t use it that often because they trust me.”

To draw the line between care and control, Evgenia Chmutova, a child psychologist at the Mental Health Center in Russia, recommends asking the question: “Is the child in real danger?” If there is no real danger, it’s better not to use tracking applications. Instead, parents should try to talk to their children and build a healthy relationship based on trust.”