Note: This is the first of several columns over the next few months that will discuss teen tech and, more importantly, the ethical standards to which parents should adhere in dealing with it. Today's question: Should parents use technology to track their teens?
Dear Wes & Jenny: A couple of weeks ago, the Journal-World carried an article about GPS cell phones that allow parents to track their teenagers anywhere they go. This or a newer version will even call parents if their teen is driving or riding faster than the speed limit. In fact, over the last 10 years Internet, instant messenger, e-mail and mobile technology have accelerated teens into an information age all their own.
As with anything in life, this has brought forth things both good and bad because our ethical standards always seem to lag behind. For example, it is generally accepted that one should not read his or her daughter's diary, or go snooping through her notes from school. But how does this apply to her Xanga site or posting on Myspace.com? Does it apply to e-mails and instant messenger transcripts? What about the history file? These are all modern-day versions of the age-old question: "How much privacy should my teen have?"
Jenny: It sounds like just another step toward Big Brother. I can understand a phone call to verify a teenager's whereabouts, but using a tracking system within a cell phone shows the lack of trust a parent has for a teenager. Respect for privacy and responsibility is thrown out the window when parents use this amount of restraint on a teen.
Imagine you are a parent who isn't completely sure where your teenager is going to be. Do you get into your car and drive to where he or she is supposed to be and camp out? Does that seem right? Is it right for parents to place so much control over their teenagers' life that they aren't even able to breath?
Teenagers should earn responsibility through their actions and prove themselves worthy of respect. Once parents have to make sure they are holding true to their word by tracking them, then the responsibility and trust no longer exist. How can a teenager grow to be an adult while being constantly monitored? The experiences that are vital to becoming a young adult will be missed because parents will be constantly watching their teen to prevent he or she from making a mistake. Parents will not be there to watch their teens for the rest of their lives.
Wes notes below that if teenagers are doing what they say they are doing then there should be no call for alarm. This is flawed because by watching them, parents are going to create paranoid teenagers who can't do things for themselves because their parents have intervened whenever they stray from the path. They are going to feel that tracking people is the proper way to make sure people are doing what they are doing, thus creating people that cannot trust easily.
Think of how you would feel if a person constantly watched what you were doing, reading and everything you said. Sounds a little creepy doesn't it? It is going to make your teenager feel like a prisoner and they will hate you for that.
It doesn't matter whether they are doing anything wrong or not: It is the blunt invasion of privacy that is going to make your teen lash out in other forms and cause much more strife than it is worth. Just imagine what you would have done if your parents had this technology. Would it only have caused bigger problems for you as a teen?
Wes: I think the ethics of this issue are murkier than Jenny portrays. I agree that the point of adolescence is to transition to adulthood, not to keep kids under one's thumb. So available technology should only mirror age-appropriate supervision standards, not turn parents into the future crime police in "Minority Report." For example, I doubt anyone would put a video camera in a 15-year-old's room because we all agree that watching a teen 24/7 while in his room is an invasion of privacy (and creepy). However, many parents will not allow a 13-year-old to go to the movies with her boyfriend without adult supervision. If a parent could have roughly the same level of supervision without actually having to be there, both the teenager and the parent could benefit. A camera phone can accomplish this by allowing the young teen to check in periodically and transmit a camera image to verify he or she really is at the movie. In this way, the parent can allow the teenager MORE freedom without giving up legitimate supervision.
I think the issue of GPS tracking is more intriguing. Hands down, the No. 1 concern presented by most parents is that their teen "is not where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there." The angry mob of teens demanding their privacy may forget this, but the ethic of parent/child relations is that you ARE supposed to be where you say you are. When you are not - and we all know those days will come - you face a certain consequence. So the use of a GPS system to verify your location isn't a new standard of supervision; it's a parent's chance to enforce the old one. If they consider the larger picture, teen readers may find that this is not so bad.
Teenagers benefit more than anyone if technology allows them to stretch the limits because their parents can verify that they really are staying the night at a friend's house and not camping at Clinton Lake with someone special. However, I would warn parents who want to track teens that they need to have a better-than-average plan for interceding if they don't like what they learn. It is one thing to be able to gather information; it's another to use it properly.
I invite comment on this topic from teens and parents, and we'll respond in Double Take for both sides.
Next week: In Jenny's last column before leaving for college, she offers her final reflections on adolescence.