Each of us remembers childhood when parents let us stay out “only till six o’clock!”, or when they called from work to check if we had returned from school. We remember when we called to warn our parents that we would be late, and we remember when our parents forbade us to leave the yard. And many kids didn’t break these rules, even when we knew that we could keep it a secret.
After the workplace was separated from the home, the ability of parents to operate at a distance regarding their children became simultaneously a benefit and a problem for nuclear families. How can parents continue to control their children if they’re in a different place – at work, on a visit, in a shop, or in another city? There were several ways to solve this problem. First, through the introduction of behavioral restrictions, for example, prescribing the use of certain routes and not others. Secondly, through the introduction of a reporting rule, when a child is required to notify parents about his plans for the day (if this implies leaving the home), to report that he has reached home, etc. Primary among controlling children’s movements is automobility, as it is impossible for children without accompanying adults [Fotel, 2003].
Recently, new technologies have added another way to monitor a child’s mobility – to track their location with special mobile applications or devices that use GPS. One of these tracking devices is a smartwatch. The use of smartwatches began in 2013, when many leading manufacturers of digital technology released this gadget. Smartwatches work like telephones, GPS trackers, and listenings device all at once, providing the possibility of one-way communication. Smartwatches are also protected from accidental (or deliberate) shutdown. These gadgets are becoming popular in Russia among parents who have children of junior and middle school age. For older children, the means of “digital control” is software for smartphones. In addition to the intended functions, smartphones are able to control the virtual mobility of the child: time spent on the Internet and online gaming, and also tracking the addition of new contacts to the smartphone. Every time when parents use this smartphone application, they see the position of their child on a map. Further, this smartphone application sends an emergency signal in situations when the child leaves a given territory set by the parents. One essential difference from a smartwatch is that a child can switch off this smartphone app.
Monitoring movement by means of GPS is the cornerstone of digital control for children’s mobility. This method is also used for tracing freight, animals, transport and employees whose operations are connected to movement. When devices that transmit a GPS signal – smartphones, smartwatch, GPS-trackers and so on – are disconnected from GPS, they are still able to determine the location of the user via signals from a location-based service (LBS). As observer and object, parents and children are connected to a vast monitoring infrastructure that includes smartphones and smartphone applications, urban location-based service, Wi-fi, and Global Navigation Satellite Systems. For parents this is working (or not working) infrastructure, and a means of obtaining knowledge; for children it is a subject of resistance, and a set of barriers restricting freedom and breaking the boundaries of private space. Parents who use digital control mobility devices note positive changes in the behavior of their children: they return earlier from school and spend only as much time as necessary on the road. Children take the position of “controlled”; knowing that they are being watched, they cease to linger on their way home, they are not distracted by looking at shop windows, billboards, or puddles, because mom is watching…
However, if a teenager comes into contact with this control infrastructure and doesn’t have a habit of constant observation from an early age, he will soon learn to manage the information that the application collects about him. For example, he can only activate his smartphone while in “legitimate” places, creating a map that will only mark the places where the teenager should be. For parents, the “visible” drawbacks are, firstly, that the application requires a lot of energy from the smartphone, and a drained phone will not send a signal about the location of the child to his parents. This creates additional situations for unrest. Secondly, disruptions in internet traffic cause the program to fix the nearest LBS signals, which distorts the track of the child’s movements and again leads to uncertainty. The introduction of control in the system of child mobility has consequences in many areas.
The use of digital control weakens behavioral control (consisting of rules and restrictions) and reduces the perception of risk, giving parents the illusion of control of the situation, and giving children the illusion of an adult presence nearby. Infrastructure that allows each parent to control the movement of their children removes responsibility from “other adults”, assuming that the safety of the child is the personal responsibility of his parents only. Further, the ability to “remove” children from dangerous places replaces the desire to remove dangerous places from the city. The gradual disappearance of children from the streets increases the suspicion of urban space. “As the streets become the exclusive domain of motorised vehicles, danger on the roads increases and pedestrian traffic ceases. Due to the lack of other people on the street, the streets are perceived to be the domain of dangerous or unsociable individuals, with adverse consequences for children, parents and those who use the streets” [Malone, Rudner. 2011]. Consequently, parental fears increase, and children receive a “vaccination of distrust” to unfamiliar adults.
- Fotel, T. 2003. The Sociology of mobility in a welfare perspective – the need of revising central concepts. The Danish Congress of Sociology, 20-22 February 2003, Aalborg University.
- Checked by Mom.ru: Kinderphone program – Mama’s website ru.
- Malone, K., Rudner, J. 2011. Global Perspectives on Children’s Independent Mobility: a socio-cultural comparison and theoretical discussion of children’s lives in four countries in Asia and Africa // Global Studies of Childhood. Vol. 1 № 3, pp. 243-259.