After my meeting, I run my index finger across the screen to unlock images of my kids. As I scan the photos, I’m hit with a pang of longing. I am pleased to see their focus. I admire the teacher’s insightful projects. I notice that my daughter’s hair has come undone, and that it is now covering her eyes. I worry she can’t see the board. I make a mental note to buy better hair ties. I notice my other daughter’s skittish look, and that her posture slightly distances her from the other girls, indicating conflict. I’ll have to ask her what happened. I go into my next meeting thinking about hair ties and cliques.
Later that day, one of my college students bounds joyfully into my office. She tells me that her mom just called to say she saw that the student had received a 93 percent on our last exam.
“Your mom called to tell you?” I ask.
“Yes, I gave her my Blackboard password, and I hadn’t checked yet,” she says.
I am struck that the parent of a college-aged student would be monitoring the online grade book. I wonder how my student’s phone call with her mother would have gone if she hadn’t gotten the A.
That evening, when I pick up my daughter, she says she got called to the school office to pick up something. She worried, thinking she was in trouble. I ask her why she thought she would be in trouble.
“Had your teacher spoken to you about anything?”
“No mama, but I worried the cameras in the hallway had caught me whispering to my friend in line,” she said.
“Cameras?” I ask.
“Yes mama, there are cameras everywhere.” Sure enough, I look up, and see dark glass domes mounted to the ceiling.
We are tracking our children’s every move, and they can feel it.
In the name of transparency, protection and parental involvement, schools are moving toward implementing parent accessible technology in the classroom. There is email, of course, and school websites, but now we can access online journals, online classrooms and social media accounts to keep tabs on our child’s day.
As a parent, I am wholly seduced by technology-based transparency in the classroom. I see how parents who have kids with health and behavior issues may feel more comfortable while keeping a passive eye on their day. I see the incredible gift of connection it can give parents who are deployed overseas or working jobs that make it impossible to visit the classroom. The photos I get of my kids at school assuage my working parent guilt, by allowing me to feel like I have checked on them. And I love having specific information to fuel conversations about my child’s day. The “What did you do today in school?” conversation doesn’t have to end just because my kid says “nothing.” I saw that model rocket ship they built with my own eyes, and can ask about what I’ve seen referenced online.
But I also remember what it was like to be a student. I loved school mostly because it was a place I could be invisible from my strict family. School gave me the freedom to experiment with my identity.
I start every semester asking my university students to answer the question: “If you could have any super power, what would it be?” It’s a silly icebreaker meant to relieve tension and give me cursory sense of who they are. But in a world where we are tracking our children’s every move, it is no surprise that students would choose invisibility.
Is it healthy for me to have the reach that I do into my kids’ lives? Should I know in real-time the status of their hair ties and cliques? I can’t help but wonder what they are holding back.
When a photograph is overexposed, it lacks detail, highlights and shadow. When children are overexposed, do they also fail to develop correctly? Perhaps our kids would benefit if we let them be a bit more unseen.
In 1791, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham advocated for an institutional building design called a “panopticon,” in which a watchman can observe inmates, workers, or patients without the inhabitants knowing whether or not they are being watched. The idea being, if people don’t ever know for sure whether or not they are being watched, they will police themselves to the standards of the watchmen, all the time.
Are we, with all of these surveillance technologies, placing our children in a virtual panopticon? Should we be concerned that this surveillance converts kids into objects, rather than the autonomous subjects we want them to be?
Privacy allows us to control the ways, and the degree to which, we welcome people into our lives. We create intimacy by revealing ourselves to others. Sleepover whispers and notes passed in class are a form of friendship currency, where privacy is traded for intimacy.
If left unchecked, our increased surveillance threatens to take the control of that exchange out of our children’s hands, because they no longer get to decide what information we have about their lives. By tracking their every move, are we overlooking teaching them how to filter and share information?
In the same hour, I received an email with the subject, “Teaching kids how to manage their social media presence” along with several notifications for photos featuring my children. Parents are supposed to teach children how to have a responsible online presence, yet we start posting images and anecdotes of our kids, without their permission, at a very early age.
Most of the technological tools used by schools to broadcast and monitor student behavior have ample privacy protections. And I have deep trust in teacher discretion. Also, it’s not like I ever consented to the awkward photos that live on my mother’s living room walls. Nevertheless, I’m a bit uneasy about my kids’ nonchalance as their teachers snap and post photos. I know that will continue as their friends, roommates and romantic partners snap and post pictures in the future.
It is futile to debate whether or not these technologies should exist; they are woven into our education culture, and they are valued by many. They aren’t going anywhere.
The bigger question is what can parents do to guard against having anxious children who are ill-equipped to filter their lives? To start, we can be deliberate about giving them spaces where we don’t, even by accident, seek a window into their world, or a way to monitor their lives. Parents need to make sure they are giving their kids age-appropriate levels of privacy, and letting them know what information they are accessing.
Elizabeth Small is a lawyer, freelance writer and mother based in West Hartford, Conn. Find her on Medium at @ElizabethAnnHowardSmall.
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