“Call me when you arrive so I know you’re safe.” That’s what my concerned parents urged when I was a kid — their way of keeping tabs on me. That phrase presumed that the check-in would occur from a landline telephone at my destination. Wow, things are changing quickly with the arrival of mobile devices, particularly smartphones. I know, I have two toddlers who love Mommy’s Droid.
According to Nielsen, the share of smartphones as a proportion of overall device sales has increased to 29% for U.S. phone purchasers in the last six months, and adoption will increase so rapidly that by the end of 2011 there will be more smartphones in the U.S. than traditional “feature phones.”
As a result, parenting, kid tracking and check-ins will diversify into a wide array of mobile multimedia, interactivity, and location-based formats. These may include text messages, email, Twitter, Facebook or Foursquare — as well as new applications waiting to be invented. Kid tracking and check-ins already can be live and active, passive, public, private or secret.
For better or worse, the ubiquity of mobile technology is introducing new conveniences, expectations, responsibilities and challenges for parents and kids. On one hand, parents can track and check in on their kids more easily, in a variety of ways. On the other, reliance on smartphone services for check-ins demands that kids fully integrate these electronic devices into their lives. How natural or reliable is that?
While smartphones and interactive services are all the rage, their potential to become a tether is where I become a troubled parent. An electronic tether may result in a panoptic child-parent relationship, or one built on the assumption of constant surveillance. For all the potential benefits, an undercurrent of surveillance can erode the foundation of meaningful relationships: trust. It may also create paranoia and prevent growth and independence. Indeed, there is a balance to achieve, one which begins when kids adopt their first smartphone, and evolves throughout their maturity and relationship with their parents.
Of course, there are cases where surveillance may be appropriate, such as with very young or delinquent kids. In most cases, any need for surveillance should decrease over time, while the desire to lurk may remain constant. Either way, I’d like to err on the side of trust, letting my kids simply be kids. I want them to have the freedom to explore, discover their boundaries, enjoy privacy and grow — confidently untethered.
There are no norms or best practices in this area, and there probably won’t be for some time. But as a society, we need to start tackling these questions. In the age of smartphones, what do you think is the best way keep tabs on your kids? What other parenting challenges do smartphones introduce?