Should We Play Big Brother with our Kids?

British and American parents are about to get it, and Australian parents may want it too. Electronic babysitting, using a hard-to-remove wristwatch device with a GPS chip, is coming to a retail and online outlets soon. Want your tubby daughter to walk to primary school, but need assurance she’s arrived safely? Have reason to doubt your year 9 son’s insistence he is spending Saturday night at a friend’s house? Child location devices offer peace of mind to any parent with a mobile phone or computer.

But at what cost? Some condemn the devices for letting parents to abdicate their responsibilities to technology. Others are concerned about child privacy.

The parental irresponsibility charge is inane. The parents of my generation used to ring the houses we claimed to be at to check our stories. Were they negligent, too? Surely the issue isn’t the legitimacy of using technology—be it telephone or GPS device—to help parents achieve their aims, but the appropriateness of those aims in the first place. The real question is whether parents should be monitoring their kids at all.

Where young children are concerned, the answer is clearly yes. Children lack the experience and wisdom to accurately judge their own best interests. We don’t make them accountable for their choices because of this, even when they end in tragedy. But those without responsibilities also lack rights. This means that if a parent feels they need a locator device to keep their child safe, they are within their legal and moral rights to use one.

Teenagers are different. The decision-making competency presumed in adults does not instantly spring into being when a child turns 16, 18 or 21. Some 14 year olds may have sufficient understanding of relevant facts, implications and consequences to decide most things for themselves, while a handful of 21 year olds will lack the competency to decide much without guidance.

This truth compels medicos to assess the competency of juveniles on a case-by-case basis. To ask whether the juvenile before them has the maturity to make the particular choice they face without parental involvement.

This suggests that parents should also consider in each instance whether fitting their teen with a locator device is wise. To ask every time whether their teen has sufficient intelligence to decide for herself where she will go and when she will return, and can be trusted at her word.

The question of trust is at the heart of the dilemma posed by child locator devices. One that pits short-term parental objectives—to keep children safe and in control—against long-term ones, like how to deliver the world a morally responsible adult.

Our moral development, like our physical development, proceeds in predictable stages roughly correlated to age. By adolescence, most western kids believe that what “everyone” says and does is what’s right. Parents hoping to mature their child to the next stage, where they understand the pre-eminence of society’s rules and precepts, must progressively untie the apron strings so their child can roam free, even if they stumble or fall.

That said, there is no cause for moral panic about child location devices. Like the technologies that have preceded it, it is simply one tool in the parental armoury for raising morally mature kids and—like all such tools—is nothing a determined kid can’t get around.

We just need to remember that when it comes to raising responsible kids, there’s no substitute for the freedom to make mistakes.

Publication history

Should We Play Big Brother with our Kids?  Sun-Herald (Sydney)