Good Fences: Electronic Leashes for Teenagers
By JOE QUEENAN
May 24, 2001
PARENTS frantically trying to insulate their adolescent progeny from the
all-engulfing darkness are resorting to tracking devices, hidden cameras,
Internet monitoring software and even automotive transponders. The benign
paranoia that began with the baby monitor and the nanny cam a decade ago has
spawned a cottage industry specializing in products for the well- heeled,
middle-aged neurotic. These are the middle-aged parents who now stand,
mouths agape, as their once-cuddly tykes morph into duplicitous,
untrustworthy teenagers. Their response is to put a tail on them.
Thus, baby boomers, who once dreaded "control freaks" and the "thought
police," have turned into their own worst nightmare: Big Brother. Deep
inside, parents of this generation seem terrified that their children will
repeat the mistakes of their own youth ^ and particularly the mistakes they
most enjoyed at the time they were making them. So they have responded the
way parents have traditionally responded: with repression fueled by fear.
In a classic paradox, the generation that produced such courtly ensembles as
Black Sabbath enthusiastically applauds Supreme Court rulings that prevent
high school students from wearing Marilyn Manson T-shirts to class.
Marilyn Manson is the rock band that has come to be identified with Satanism
and drugs, making it anathema to a generation that grew up on homespun
artistes like Jim Morrison (incest, patricide, drugs), Jefferson Airplane
(violent revolution, drugs) and Jimi Hendrix (mostly drugs). But that was in
a simpler, more innocent time when Satanism seemed vaguely wholesome.
The telltale signs of parental terror are everywhere. This spring, the
German company Siemens tested the prototype of a seven-ounce tracking device
that enables children to maintain constant communication with their parents.
Fusing digital mobile phone technology, a satellite- based global
positioning system and good old-fashioned insanity, the device can pinpoint
a child within several yards in a matter of seconds.
Closer to home, an American company called Digital Angel is developing a
small watchlike band that allows parents to log on to an Internet site and
find the precise whereabouts of anyone from a small child to a parent with
Alzheimer's disease. Not to be outdone, a company called eWorldtrack is
working on a child- tracking device that will fit inside athletic shoes.
And in Texas, 1,000 drivers have allowed an insurance company to place
transponders in their cars, theoretically allowing the insurer and the
parent to know how fast teenagers drive, where they drive and when they
Toss in all those cameras disguised as smoke alarms, software programs that
monitor chat room conversations and other surveillance devices, and it's
obvious that teenagers in this society are going to have a hard time
sneaking off for their first beer.
At first glance, such innovations seem a perfect embodiment of the baby
boomer ethos: why use traditional parental techniques like love, discipline
or conversation to solve a problem when you can fix it via modem? Yet the
need to resort to such devices is not devoid of an emotional component.
Boomers, knowing what they were capable of, simply do not trust their
children. They're afraid the kids are going to get drunk. They're afraid the
kids are going to get high. They're afraid the kids are going to run off and
join the French Foreign Legion. Or worse, date the French Foreign Legion.
Yet, there is something willfully naive about this faith in technology.
Surely, middle-aged parents must know from their own formative experiences,
and from watching "Rebel Without a Cause," that a certain measure of
youthful rebellion is inevitable. Surely, they must realize that there are
rites of passage.
Every teenager must eventually wander into the wrong neighborhood and then,
without parental assistance, figure out a way to wander back out. The
survival tactics developed in such situations will come in handy later when
he finds himself in the wrong bar, the wrong ballpark, the wrong subway or
the wrong country. It's unfortunate that life has to be this way. But it is.
A second drawback of monitoring devices is that they give both adults and
children a false sense of security. Monitoring systems may inform parents
where their children are, but they do not show whom they are with. One of
the great benefits of actually spending time with your kids is that you can
see whether Heath and Madison are consorting with miscreants, street
urchins, hooligans, guttersnipes, ne'er-do-wells, mysterious carnies or that
broad general class subsumed under the rubric "bad actors."
For these devices to be effective, society would need to force sinister
citizens to carry similar devices that would set off an alarm whenever they
came into contact with authentically virtuous middle-class children. Alas,
that would probably not sit well with the American Civil Liberties Union.
In the end, the worst thing about child-monitoring devices is that they
provide new reasons for children to loathe their parents. Obsessing about
children's comings and goings perpetuates the yuppie tendency to treat
everything as a possession: if you made it, you own it. Even if it's human.
There is something unyielding and unhealthy about this desire to control
every situation. If parents are so desperate to find out where their kids
are going, whom they're seeing and how fast they're driving to get there,
perhaps they should consider hiring private detectives. If parents have so
little faith in their children, why not get it out in the open?
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