Today’s “Information Age” that we all live in has provided access to unlimited information at the mere click, be it an event, a place or a person. We track our pets, our food deliveries, our mail and when it comes to surveillance that can help us knowing our children’s location, their web surfing choices, their social media posts, we dig right in.
Rapid advancements in technology have made surveillance tools accessible and affordable for modern-day parents. A feature of everyday life for some years, surveillance has readily been accepted into the family, due to its changing structure and interpersonal dynamics. Every parent wishes to keep the child protected, watched over and out of harm’s way.
In the past, when communities and families were closer-knit units and joint family system was the norm, this watching over was done by friends, relatives and neighbours. Today’s life of reduced reliance on the community can lead to an increased perception of danger, where the technological “watchful eye” can provide a reliable and convenient way to alleviate such fears.
Online, such fears stem from dangers of cyber stalking, paedophiles and unwanted sexual solicitations. According to the 2011 PEW Research Centre survey, 54 per cent of US parents reported using parental controls or other means of filtering or monitoring their child’s computer-based online activities. 61 per cent of parents checked the websites that their teenagers visited, 60 per cent visited their social media accounts and 48 per cent looked through their phone calls and messages. The portion that tracked their teenagers’ whereabouts through their cell phones was 16 per cent.
Along with safety and convenience, which appear to be the major selling point of these technologies, these surveillance tools also provide emotional fulfillment to parents who are unable to spend as much time as they want to with their children, owing to their jobs or other responsibilities.
Empirical researches have established that parental monitoring as one of the key factors for preventing internet gaming disorder, substance use, risky sexual behaviour, delinquency and so forth. However, there is a dire need to understand the adolescents’ perspective and the way monitoring impacts relationships. We as a society have embraced surveillance tools for our children, however there has been little research and debate on effects this kind of surveillance has on them.
Trust is fundamental to the healthy development in children. As they get older, trust can become an issue if parents rely on technology to obtain information about their child rather than speaking with the child directly.
Findings of the 2012 Media Smarts study, “Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Talking to Youth and Parents about Life Online” showed that participants aged 11 and 12 accepted parental monitoring of their online activities as a necessary precaution because, in their view, the Internet is a dangerous place and any strangers they might encounter are not trustworthy.
Teenage participants, on the other hand, resented parental monitoring and most used privacy settings and other methods to block family members and relatives. Hence, age impacts the kind of reactions the child may feel.
When surveillance is interpreted to mean lack of trust, this can result in secrecy on the part of children and youth, as well as a reluctance to share information with parents.
In a study conducted by Hawk et al (2012) in Netherlands on nearly 500 adolescents and their parents, youth who perceived their privacy as being invaded became even more secretive with their parents. As a result, these parents ended up knowing less about the children’s lives after follow-up one year later.
A recent data from MRC National Survey of Health and Development (Stafford et al, 2015) reported that parents who were deemed controlling — not allowing children to make their own decisions, not letting them think on their own or to have their own opinions, invading their privacy, or engaging in behaviour that fostered parental dependence — produced children who believed themselves to have lower mental wellbeing and were less happy than people raised by supportive, less controlling parents.
Surveillance in childhood can have a profound effect on understanding privacy later in life. Children learn through experience, and if they do not grow up in an environment where privacy is practised, they may not understand its importance when they are older.
They may not understand boundaries and privacies or recognise the need for them in others. As children grow older, being respected for their individuality is of paramount importance, the lack of which results in low self-confidence, lack of assertiveness and even rebellious or defiant behaviour.
Surveillance technologies as a substitute for more nuanced discussion and education can have a negative impact on children because the ultimate aim of such technologies is to create a risk-free environment which does not reflect the real world.
Surveillance is often experienced by children as a form of control that limits their choices and their ability to act independently. It decreases opportunities for children to explore the world around them, and negotiate risks by exercising autonomy and independence, i.e., the ability to think independent of reward and punishment, and to decide between right and wrong based on their values and ethics. When children are directed in their actions, they are denied opportunities to experiment with making critical and ethical choices, leading to lower ability of self-control and self-regulation.
These outcomes, however, represent scenarios of constant surveillance. It is worth considering whether surveillance technologies can be used in a restrained and age-appropriate manner promoting safety without having negative effects on children.
In this paradigm, the skill of digital literacy, defined as the ability to navigate the online world in an effective and safe way, needs to be inculcated in children. Developing digital literacy skills requires that children have the freedom to identify helpful web tools and potential harms in their social media interactions, surfing choices and other online activities.
With time, changes in societal structure and functioning along with technological advancements have brought about location tracking and online surveillance of children to be an acceptable phenomenon for parents. However, due its relative novelty, its long-term effects on children as well as families need to be examined in a greater depth. Such researches may enable a better understanding about various nuances of surveillances, such as the extent of surveillance, its intensity and parental reaction to such information; and may contribute to striking an effective balance between children’s liberty and safety.
(Dr Rachna Bhargava, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology, & Dr Gayatri Bhatia Sharma, senior resident (DM), Department of Psychiatry & National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre, AIIMS, New Delhi)...