Smartphone surveillance may be bad for parent-child relations – Dr Gina Helfrich

Can a smartphone undermine a child’s trust in their parents?

We live in a world suffused with surveillance, a word that likely brings to mind things like security cameras and ankle monitors, but most of the relevant technologies are both more mundane and much more pervasive. While we may not, on first reflection, consider it a tool of surveillance, the prime offender here is undoubtedly the smartphone, which has the potential to reveal incredibly intimate details about a person. It is also a primary means by which parents surveil their children, through apps like Find My Friends or Life360, which offers location tracking as a service.

Apps and technologies like these that make it easy for parents to keep tabs on their children seem at first glance to be harmless, or even helpful. What parent doesn’t want to know where their children are – that they are safe? We’ve come a long way from a parent watching their child walk to school using a pair of binoculars out the kitchen window – which my own mother did to me back in the 90s. No need for binoculars today! Just give your kid a smartphone and you can track their every movement.

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However, we seldom stop to consider the impact that this level of surveillance may be having on our relationships. Any environment or relationship that includes ongoing surveillance implies a lack of trust. We surveil because we worry. Surveillance technologies help us to feel more in control in an uncertain world. But the flip side is that being watched over makes us feel less in control – and we really don’t like it.

Workers hate being surveilled by their employers, and yet it’s only becoming more prevalent. Nearly 80 per cent of companies whose staff work remotely at least sometimes are using monitoring software – despite an even greater percentage of employers having ethical concerns about it.

Recent research shows this dynamic is equally true between parents and children. As you might imagine, teenagers whose parents surveilled them resented it and used privacy settings and other methods to try to block it. ‘Helicopter parenting’ – which can only be enhanced by surveillance technologies – is associated with anxiety and depression, life dissatisfaction, and emotional disregulation in young adults. Conversely, the teens who share more about their lives with their parents tend to be those who aren’t routinely monitored. Because the parents trusted their kids, the kids responded by being more open with their parents about their lives and behaviour.

Whether for parents or employers, the availability of surveillance technologies risks creating a harmful cycle. People use surveillance tools in an effort to exert control, and yet that very effort motivates those being monitored to try to resist and reassert their privacy and independence – thereby prompting efforts at yet more surveillance. The result is a loss of trust in the relationship and negative impacts on mental health.

We may not often stop to reflect on how technological tools can change our expectations and relationships. But when it comes to surveillance, our relationships may be better served by relying on trust over technology.

Dr Gina Helfrich is Baillie Gifford programme manager for the Centre for Technomoral Futures at Edinburgh Futures Institute, University of Edinburgh

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