Smart devices make it possible for parents to keep close tabs on their latchkey children, but is it really a good idea, asks Ronda Kaysen.
My son is off the leash. When he starts middle school next week, he will have the house to himself after school on the days when I am not working from home.
I could let him revel in this preadolescent milestone where he gets to play “Splatoon 2” all afternoon with no one yelling at him. Or, I could fill my house with smart devices and watch him do whatever it is an 11-year-old does when he thinks he is alone.
Sure, he could pick up the phone and call me to let me know he has arrived home, but why rely on such an archaic option when I could instead turn my front door into Big Mother?
I could install a keyless lock, like Kevo by Kwikset, and receive a text message when he unlocks it. With a digital home security system, like SimpliSafe, I could get an alert that he has disarmed the system and a video clip of him walking in. I could use SimpliSafe door sensors to warn me if he opens anything off limits — that will keep him out of the cookie drawer.
With a microphone-enabled camera, like Canary, I could talk to him from the mantle. Imagine his reaction when he hears my disembodied voice emanating from a little box ordering him to put down the Nintendo Switch. “We see lots and lots of family members using this as a tool to monitor their kids,” said Bob Stohrer, chief marketing officer for Canary.
While parents of young children have long used nanny cams to keep tabs on baby sitters, companies are now marketing these products to parents of older children, too. This time the camera is pointed not at the untrustworthy caregiver, but at the potentially rebellious adolescent.
“Parents use it to better understand when they come and go, what they’re doing, what time they go to sleep, when they have friends over,” Stohrer said.
A Canary television ad trades the creepy home invader in the bushes for the wild teenage baby sitter who invites her boyfriend over and, while they canoodle on the couch, the unsupervised children flood the bathroom and take the car out for a spin. The message is clear: Home security is about keeping tabs on the people inside your house, not the strangers lurking outside.
More than half the parents who use Canary cite a need to monitor their children as a primary reason for buying the device. SimpliSafe reported similar behavior, finding that the safety alerts were particularly popular among parents, who primarily use their products to “keep their kids safe,” said Melina Engel, the company’s chief marketing officer.
These new surveillance options come at a time of heightened angst about parental supervision. In her memoir “Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear,” released in August, Kim Brooks chronicles being charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor after she briefly left her small child alone in a car. She argues that her odyssey through the criminal justice system was a product of a culture convinced that our children are in a constant state of peril and only a vigilant parent can protect them.
“We are living in an age of fear,” she writes. Most of the dangers our children face — a changing climate, a vanishing middle class, spiraling health care costs — are beyond our control. And so our grip on the things we think we can control — like what our children do with their afternoons — grows tighter.
Gone are the days of riding your bike around the neighborhood on your own until dusk. A 2014 Reason-Rupe poll found that 68 percent of Americans thought that a 9-year-old should not be allowed to play in a park unsupervised, and just over half of Americans thought a 12-year-old deserved such independence. Yet more than 40 percent of children are left home alone at times, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology.
Since we are expected to always be watching even when we can’t, we look to technology to solve the impossible. If we download the right app, maybe we can keep harm at bay, and no one can call us a neglectful mother. Just as parents use GPS tracking devices on cellphones to monitor their children out in the world, parents can point to that camera on the bookshelf as proof that our attention is squarely focused on home, even when it isn’t. With enough devices, we can constantly guard the roost.
But do I really want to know about everything that is happening in my house? A live feed into my living room means my home is only as safe as the last time I checked. Sure, my son was fine when he arrived, but is he now? How about now? And should he decide to go play with a neighbor, I will get a fresh alert reminding me that until that next one chimes, I should be on, well, alert.
“The more you engage in this sort of fear-driven buying and reacting, the more scared and worried and distrustful you’re likely to become,” said Barry Glassner, author of “The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.”
Yet, our children are alone sometimes, and technology can help us know when they have gotten home safely. A microphone-enabled camera could make it easier to help children with homework or to intervene in a sibling dispute.
Ann Marie Luft, who lives with her husband and two daughters near Orlando, Florida, used a camera to check in on her older daughter, Hannah, now 15, when she first started coming home from school alone four years ago. Luft, a registered nurse, would check the camera, scanning the room for her daughter and talking to her through the smartphone app. The camera helped ease the transition to independence, Luft said.
Eventually, it no longer felt necessary. Now, Hannah texts her mother when she gets on or off the bus, although she sometimes forgets. Luft said she tolerated the flakiness as part of the price of adolescence. “When we were kids, we never had our parents spying on us,” she said.
I think back to my own adolescence and mostly remember hours spent hanging out with friends, calling my mother once and then making it home by dinnertime. I was no angel, but I somehow muddled through. If my son were to know that a camera was pointed at him, he might feel the need to find ways around it. Or, perhaps worse, not bother to step outside at all.
“These technologies and their use have a potential to erode that gray area zone where we actually do a lot of learning about ourselves and our family and friends, where we learn how to deal with questions about what should I do? When it is right for me to break the rules?” said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney and the Adams Chair for Internet Rights at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Those are important parts of growing up.”
As smart home technology improves, we will get more novel ways to manage our homes, and the people inside them. Sensors could soon monitor a lack of activity in your house.
So if your teenager does not leave the couch all afternoon, “you could get an alert that there’s been no alert,” Stohrer, of Canary, said. And with that, you would get something new to worry about.