Wes: It’s been too long since we visited the issue of high-tech teen monitoring in this column. In the meantime, these gadgets have become affordable, powerful and well-marketed. Just the other day while whisking through commercials on TiVo, I caught a glimpse of a happy teen girl on her way to soccer practice, her tracking device shepherding her journey through the perils of urban life. The GPS device knew she had arrived and phoned her parents, who were presumably anxious to know that she was safe and sound. No controversies, no arguments — just a wonderful tool to help protect kids. Don’t want to go to that much trouble? Look no further than your child’s GPS-enabled cell phone to track him or her into every nook and cranny of civilization. Not so fast.
What the advertisements forget to mention is the typical problem we face with every emerging technology. Our reach exceeds our grasp. Our knowledge creates things much faster than our wisdom teaches us to use them. So the idea of tracking teenagers may be a terrific way to maintain age-appropriate supervision, or it may be an intrusive violation of reasonable autonomy. The point of this column is not to answer that question but to be sure everyone has thought it through before selecting GPS as this year’s holiday gift.
Supervision requirements should change over a child’s life. Unless there are issues of behavior, addiction or mental illness, parents should never supervise a 16-year-old the way they do a 9-year-old. Neither should supervision vanish by mid-adolescence. New technologies make it possible to extend some level of supervision and oversight into the community, and it’s up to parents to determine what they want to know and what to do with that knowledge. In any supervision plan — electronic or not — it is vital that parents have a long-term strategy that grows with the child. Teenagers who were appropriately supervised through childhood and early pre-adolescence will find less fault with parents who continued an evolving supervision strategy, because they’ve simply come to expect it.
Even so, most teens will argue that any electronic supervision is a violation of fundamental human rights afforded them by the Constitution, the United Nations and several hundred years of western civilization. I can guarantee I would have risen up against the oppression of The Man had anyone proposed this to me when I was 15. But this very protest begs a few fundamental questions: Why, my son or daughter, WOULDN’T you want me to know where you are? Why WOULDN’T you be where I think you are? Is your demand that I trust you a binding and enforceable agreement, or just a debating point to get me off your back? As teens, we struggled for our freedom, each in our own way and by our own means. As adults we are by necessity the people our teens must struggle against to reach the same end.
In closing, I’ll offer a couple of clichés worth remembering: Trust is a two-way street and has to be earned. Parents now have some incredibly powerful tools to enforce the presumption of honesty and sensibility among their teens as they venture out into the world. However, with great power comes great responsibility, and such tools must be used wisely.
Kelly: Yes, our advancing technology seems to be opening doors of opportunity for human potential. Yet it is, at times, closing another important door: the ability to communicate face-to-face.
We don’t know how to communicate, so we find other methods to do so. We rely on popular Web sites such as eHarmony, Myspace and Facebook, and cell phones and text messaging as social apparatuses. I know plenty of my friends’ parents who have Facebook accounts. Apparently they do not take a hint when their children continue to reject their requests to join their list of friends. Do teens see these requests as a means to make their parent-child bond stronger? Or do they see their parents trying to be nosey?
Parents, remember when you were a kid? Were you completely honest with your parents? Did you ever lie to them? Perhaps that’s the real reason why you are attempting to shelter your children. You don’t want them to have the same “experiences” you did as a teenager. However, after such an experience, have you ever learned and grown because of it? How are your children ever going to learn about the “real” world if you never allow them to experience it?
Now I’m not suggesting parents allow their children to run wild, but to let them know their boundaries and enforce them. Then be reasonable when it comes time that these boundaries should be lifted. Reassure them that they are trustworthy.
Most importantly, do not substitute such technology for not communicating with your children. Relying on GPS may reassure you that your child is safe, but think of what you may be losing — your child’s respect and trust. Not many teens I know are happy to hear that their parents are following their every move. If you want to maintain a good relationship with your child, I suggest giving them the room to grow.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Kelly Kelin is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.