Virtual freedom: is technology good for children's independence?


I am a strong advocate of giving children more independence. But what does is really mean in our age of technology and how important is it to children in the 21st century.

Studies have shown that children don’t really like being alone. They would often prefer to be out with friends than on their own, and they would even often choose to have their parent with them. For parents, many (not all) choose to walk or drive their children to school because, apart from the often practical implications, it gives them ‘quality’ time to talk to their child, that in our time pressured lives we have often have limited opportunity to do.

Parents also often find it easier to supervise their children than not. They don’t have to worry about the numerous risk that they believe they might encounter. Whether or not these risk are founded in truth is not the point, they are real to the parent and therefore a factor in what influences their decision. Risks such as ‘stranger danger,’ road traffic, a child getting lost on their own, all make it easier for a parent to not give the freedom to be out and about on their own, and to stick with them. But what if technology had the answer?

A recent episode of the Netflix series Black Mirror has brought some of the concepts of childhood independence firmly to light. The episode begins with a mother losing her toddler in the playground. After a short panic, the mother finds her child, and then considers what she could do to ensure she doesn’t lose her again. Conveniently, there is a product offering a free trial, where the child can have a GPS implant inserted into their skull and the parent is then able to track both their location and view their activities on their device.

We're not there yet, but even the basic premise of tracking our children raises many questions. Most parents have been in a situation when they have ‘mislaid’ a young child. It might often only be for a second, although it often feels like much longer and it's never a pleasant experience. I still remember the time when I lost my one year old son in the railway museum in York. I was with other family members at the time, yet somehow none of us saw him wonder off or where he went. What followed was quite a bit of panicking, looking under and in trains and, on notifying security, the entire security staff of the museum on the lookout for him and covering all possible exits. We found him about 10 minutes later in a toy car about 20 meters from where we’d been sitting, huddled in between two other children, none the wiser. I think after that incident I probably did start googling ‘child GPS tracking devices.’

There are a huge array of tracking devices now available for children, largely aimed at under 10s. Most of these will link up to your phone and provide up to date information of where your child is, perhaps allow you to send messages (based on the assumption that they'll be able to read before they're allowed out alone) and set off an alarm if they travel outside a preset boundary. Of course, the marketing for these products is all about the positives, such as this strapline from Gator Watch: 'designed to offer peace of mind to parents and guardians who have a child or children who are too young for a smartphone but old enough to want their independence.' Of course, there are obvious ethical issues here about whether it is correct to be monitoring your child’s every move. I personally wonder what the child thinks and whether they see it as an infringement of their privacy though. I wonder whether children would rather be granted independence, even if it does mean being tracked.

There has been some research on slightly older children’s use of mobile phones, which tends to find that children are actually happy to have these and they feel like it means their parents will provide them with an increased level of independence. When I say slightly older, approximately half of children aged 10 or 11 are likely to have a mobile phone of their own. However, what about these younger children who are really still developing their independence and are also less likely to be given a choice. There appears to be little knowledge of what the benefits are to them and how are these perceived, or how it might affect their behaviour.

It is also important to consider if these devices are providing a false sense of security for both the adult and the child. Historically, children would gain independence from their parents very gradually, as the parent trusted them to be able to travel further and complete tasks on their own. Do these devices risk parents simply letting their children go without considering the risks that are out there? The device isn’t going teach them to look left and right before they cross a busy road. And what if the device stops working or the child takes it off? What sort of sense of security is it giving the child and if they didn’t have the device, would they still be able to manage? As a parent, there is certainly a question about how much more risk you are letting your child take, simply because you can track their whereabouts.

At present, there are very few children wearing these devices but this is clearly a growing market and it’s relatively easy to conceive a future where every child is wearing one. Imagine a future where children aren't being ferried to school in cars with their parents, but are walking to school on their own, with GPS devices on their wrists. As a parent in that era, it would be difficult to say no to the marketing that this is protecting your child and giving you peace of mind. There are also the potential benefits to the child's physical and emotional well-being of being out and about in their neighbourhood walking and interacting with their peers. If you were in that position, what would you do?