Friday, February 22, 2008

Family Surveillance: Mobile Locators

It seems that news about new mobile locator technologies designed to help parents track their kids -- either via cell phones or some other device -- are being launched almost every other week these days. In the UK especially, news coverage of the devices and their potential "safety" value is frequent and fairly prominent. In a country where one third of under 10s allegedly have their own mobile phone, tacking on surveillance features may appear to be the intuitive next step in "remote parenting"...rather than hassle your kids with a phone call, just look up their GPS coordinates to make sure they are where they said they'd be, etc. Here are a few recent examples of mobile locators in the news:

From SourceWire, a new study by found that:
Fears about child abduction have left British mums and dads desperate to keep tabs on their youngsters – and as a result, nearly two thirds have invested in a mobile phone for their offspring.

But many parents are taking security a stage further – by turning to the very latest satellite spy technology to ensure the safety of their kids “on a day-to-day basis”.
Hundreds of mums and dads have already registered their children’s mobile phone numbers with the website to pinpoint the user’s exact location. And of the 2,100 people polled – two thirds said they would be happy to invest in the new software, no matter how intrusive.

According to the article, however, another third say they don't want their kids to become paranoid about being under constant surveillance, and question the ethics of these types of devices. Although the company head says that "concern for security outweighs the worry about the Big Brother phenomenon,” the fact that the survey also found that about a fifth of respondents would also want to use the technology to track their significant others, I'm not so sure that privacy issues are so easily dismissed.

In terms of interesting usage/family dynamics stats, the study also found that most kids get their first mobile phone at age 11 (20% vs. 16% at age ten, 14% at age 12, and 2% at age 4). Among the 43% of parents who wouldn't allow their child to have a mobile, most based this decision on the belief that "the child was “not old enough” to have one." Other reasons given were the fear that having a mobile would attract bullying or theft, that it would lead to text messaging "addictions," or it could cause a brain tumour. In keeping with the industry's emerging party line when it comes to kids and mobiles, however, suggests that not allowing kids a phone creates a "“massive” extra workload for security-conscious parents" - who now more than ever (?assuming an increase - not so sure about that) drive their kids around everywhere (20%), don't let their kids out after dark (12%), and get involved in "vetting" their child's friends (defined as "some"). In relaying these stats, however, the article fails to mention any age differences (for example, it's pretty likely the parents of any 4-year-old will drive them everywhere, mobile phone or no), differences over time, or whether these behaviours apply solely to parents who don't give their kids mobiles, or to parents generally. Needless to say, I detect a bit of fear mongering. Keep an attentive eye on the use of the term "peace of mind" within industry discourses and ads.

Case in point, a recent article in The Inquirer on a "Madeleine McCann effect" apparently taking place in the UK, linking the MobileLocators study to the recent high-profile child disappearance/kidnapping of Madeleine McCann. According this article, parents are buying phones for their kids at an increasingly young age in direct response. As for those that don't allow their kids to have a mobile, the reporter blames "that government boffin, Sir William Stewart, specifically advised parents not to give the phones to children under the age of eight." Yikes! Nevermind that a number of well respected medical associations have advised the same thing, or that the debates around mobile phones and health, mobile locators and privacy/surveillance, and even mobiles and safety are still very much in full swing.

The safety issue comes up again within another recent innovation -- mobile monitors. As reported by Actual Technology News Blog, "a handful of companies are rolling out software that they say lets parents monitor communications their kids are having on the phone and hopefully protect them from unwanted advances." Just like Internet filters before them, these products are being sold (or at least promoted) as solutions to new forms of wireless stranger danger:
"All the problems of the Internet are on the cell phone," said Bob Lotter, founder of Newport Beach, Calif.-based eAgency Mobile Solutions, which offers a cell phone monitoring service on "Cyber-bullying, unsolicited sexual advances and child pornography" are all happening on the mobile phone, he said.

While much of the attention is centered on predators using the Internet to stalk children, Lotter and other experts say cell phones are an ideal means for predators because parents often don’t check what’s going on with a child’s cell phone. It's also a device that is commonly used by children out of their parent’s watchful eye.

The article also includes the following quote, which I found particularly interesting:
According to Teri Schroeder, chief executive of, parents need to be aware of any two-way communications whether it's via the Internet or a cell phone. "They have to understand it's high-tech high-touch," she said, noting that text messaging is a "huge" means of communications and with things like global positioning systems built into the phone it's increasingly dangerous for children. "We now have a medium that's intimidating to the parent and challenging parenting skills," she said.

Schroeder's comments point to a pretty important and largely unspoken aspect of these mobile locators -- the lack of regulation and transparency about how the collected data is used, by whom, and what safety measures are applied to ensure that no one but the parent is able to track the kid's phone.

This leads me to another article, one which delves a little more deeply effectiveness issues of and begins to explore the impact they may have on family dynamics and "traditional" values such as honesty, responsibility and trust. It's from a story that was covered on Channel 9 WSYR news (in Syracuse) about the use of GPS locator technologies in the workplace. Perhaps because the topic is introduced in terms of adult employers tracking their adult employees, issues around privacy and the potential detrimental effects of being constantly surveilled are introduced immediately. Near the bottom of the article, the focus shifts onto parents using GPS to track their kids -- listing a number of such services, their cost and more "peace of mind" rhetoric, this time from Jack Pflanz of Sprint/Nextel. After introducing the state of the market, however, the story shifts again, this time placing the focus on one family that tried the technology and have since decided against it. Although definitely of the "human interest story" variety, this part of the article also functions quite effectively in reconnecting the parents/kids dimension of mobile locators back to the employer/employee tracking examined at the start of the article. Here's an excerpt:
Carl Loerzel gave his daughter what every teen wants: a cell phone; but then Carl told Brittany the cell phone plan would allow him to track her movements through GPS technology. "I thought about the mall trips, what if something happens, where is she."

Brittany didn’t think the technology was going to work, and would be able to do what ever she wanted. "That's not how it turned out." Brittany got caught in a lie at one point, caught being where she wasn’t supposed to be. "[My dad] knew exactly where I was; he picked me up, and brought me home. That didn't get me nowhere but grounded."

"I think she understood that, once we talked to her about it, once we got passed the yelling part of it," Carl said. Dad and daughter did a lot more talking following the incident. In fact, they've come to terms and have decided to give relying on talking and tender loving care, instead of GPS.

Brittany says she learned to be honest, and not lie. "If you lie, you're going to get in more trouble." Her dad says he now trusts his daughter a lot more.

Ok, so the way the story plays out, it does appear that having the GPS unit initiated better family communication, and so on, but I think that the important thing is that the family decided to go with honesty over tracking. I wish that the story had examined this change in opinion a little more in depth, but I suspect that it links up to some of the academic studies on parental monitoring, which argue that child disclosure is still the best way to keep track of your kids...Best in terms of the parent-child relationship, the likelihood that the child will engage in "delinquent" behaviour, and in terms of the amount and quality of information that the parent obtains about the kid when she/he is away from home.

In particular, I'm referring to two articles by Stattin and Kerr:
Stattin, HÃ¥kan and Margaret Kerr (2000). Parental Monitoring: A Reinterpretation. Child Development, Vol. 71, No. 4, pp. 1072-1085.


Kerr, Margaret and Hgakan Stattin (2000). What Parents Know, How They Know It, and Several Forms of Adolescent Adjustment: Further Support for a Reinterpretation of Monitoring. Developmental Psychology Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 366-380.

Their exploration of family surveillance and parental knowledge of children's activities outside the home, have found that much of the information parents obtain about their child's whereabouts and activities come from the children themselves...and that child disclosure, as opposed to parental monitoring and control, is correlated to a number of pro-social variables (as described above -- better parent-child relationships, lower rates of delinquency, better informed parents, etc.), and is much more in line with children's participatory rights and right to privacy. As Stattin and Kerr (2000) describe:
"[H]igh parental knowledge was linked to multiple measures of good adjustment. But children's spontaneous disclosure of information explained more of these relations than parents' tracking and surveillance efforts did. Parents' control efforts were related to good adjustment only after the child's feelings of being controlled, which were linked to poor adjustment, were partialed out.

This has led them to conclude that:
"[T]racking and surveillance is not the best prescription for parental behavior and that a new prescription must rest on an understanding of the factors that determine child disclosure."

More to come!


Anonymous said...

Great, wide-reaching post. Giving your child a cel phone with the purpose of tracking is a great way to foster distrust and resentment in any family. Like with internet filters, kids will find a way around the gps trackers in phones to give the appearance of compliance to the parents while engaging in activities those parents would deem risky. I'm glad open communication was mentioned in that Channel 9 story, but saddened that it wasn't either the focus of the story of more fully explored. However, I wasn't surprised. Open honesty won't sell more cel phones in a saturated marketplace, but playing on people's fears and offering a "sense" of security always will.

Thanks for the links and resources. You've given me much to read and ponder.

Sara M. Grimes said...

My pleasure Liam - and thank you for the comments.

CCFC said...

Great post, Sara. And very interesting on the effects of child disclosure vs. parent monitoring.

One thing that we are very concerned about at CCFC with GPS and cell phones: place-based advertising. It seems only a matter of time before advertisers have the ability to know where kids are too and send ads/offers to phones telling them they're only a block away from McDonald's, etc . .


Shaping Youth said...

With "worldwide spending by young people on mobile phone-related products/svcs. worth $1.1 trillion" there's no doubt it's the next big push/platform, particularly with ad sponsored phone time/minutes exchanged for eyeballs, but Josh, I don't think CCFC should worry TOO much about junk food giants targeting kids via mobile, as advertisers would shoot themselves in the foot if they did that.

Food marketers are under serious scrutiny & under 'watchdog' alert, so that would bury them in the public's eye. Can't imagine they'd be that brazen &/or inept.

Retail and such is another story, and frankly, some of the couponing and convenience opt-ins are quite viable (vs. push technology)

In fact the Mobile Youth summit is going on in Prague today...and I wish I were a fly on the wall to see who's mining what...I'll try to get transcripts of key sessions somehow & touch base at CCFC.

As for the tracking/surveillance's a false sense of security on parent's part, completely. If parents clamp down in gestapo mode, we all know the behavior squishes out sideways; we track that anecdotally w/our social media research for Shaping Youth in schools.

Likewise, anyone that lives here in the Silicon Valley knows that kids are able to 'work around' most anything, so the relationship/trust aspect is pivotal.

Teens collude with ease, and if parents default to policing & surveillance mode, that phone can be 'planted' on a peer to be tracked & 'found' while junior himself is elsewhere...(at least that's what I'm hearing in our circles here, so the remote parent approach of a GPS tether seems misguided)

The other thing that concerns me is the KIDS feeling 'safer' when they're 'not'...

We're testing this a bit on urban/suburban kids who toss a phone in their pack on the nature trails or even on our urban park outings out of cell reach...

Kids automatically assume they can always 'find their way out' so don't watch as closely where they're going, then whammo; they lose the cell signal altogether & it's 'um, oops, now what?'

Here's a personal account of same, which gave me the initial idea of setting up this counter-marketing tactic. (yes, it was inspired by my own daughter!)