Tracking our growing children, one microchip at a time

Last night I went out for dinner with four women friends. Each has children that are about the same age as my own children, who are 11 and 13. The first thing one friend said to another when we sat down was that she had heard that chips were now available. Being ever-perceptive, I assumed she was going to tell us about that product that is the current source of my guilty pleasure and that I’d been eating just before our dinner: Pop Chips (“the potato chip that’s not baked or fried!”). But she continued to explain that she was talking about the chips I study rather than those I eat: microchips that would allow parents to track their kids’ whereabouts.

“Yeah, but you can already do that with their cell phones, right?,” I asked, trying to understand the enthusiasm for this new portable parent-friendly microchip. Yes, of course, several friends acknowledged, and the mom who’s especially enthused about this possibility for tracking talked about how glad she is that this technology will be available when her now-11-year-old reaches her teen years. This friend’s told us about her own teen escapades sneaking out of the house, and she very much wants to nip that temptation in the bud for her daughter.

We then launched into a series of riffs on how one could “plant” the microchip on our kids: in a pocket? In sports equipment? Under their skin? This led to a lot of laughter. It all seems so sci-fi.

Eventually, one of my friends then talked more seriously about how much she and her husband had enjoyed using cell phones to keep track of their two sons when they were all skiing together. “We can see exactly where they are on the mountain,” she explained, which helped them to feel reassured about giving their sons the freedom to ski down on their own, and also limited the possibilities for missed signals about meeting times and locations.

The conversation was striking to me because I’ve just been reading Margaret Nelson’s book, Parenting Out of Control, which gives a tut-tut-tut to moms like me and my friends who have casually adopted a variety of technologies for keeping track of growing children. Nelson’s analysis is spot on: she’s right that parents voice anxiety about the risks our children face, and that we are interested in how technologies might contain that risk. It was interesting to me to observe that, as Nelson noted, technologies of surveillance seem to have moved from strange to commonplace in parent life. But it’s also interesting that none of the parents of preteens around the table were currently using these microchip technologies. Instead, the fact that they were available was a source of comfort: it was a just-in-case technology.

Is this a function of age, or of differing parenting philosophies? Are my friends and I parents who will want to use these technologies in a few years, or will we find for some reason that we don’t need them or don’t want them? As of today I’m hoping that I don’t want to use them, as it seems pretty invasive and overbearing to want to track teens’ whereabouts. I think it’s okay for them to make some bad choices and suffer some consequences without me intervening. I kind of suspect that my friends won’t really do much tracking either, although I bet we’ll know – and discuss – other moms who do. And I’m sure that I’ll find some reasons for surveillance more convincing than others the more I hear about them.

As a social scientist, the strange thing is that we’ll never really know what such tracking might prevent, so we won’t be able to tell whether this invasiveness is actually worth it in the long run. Will our Super Parent tracking efforts result in the prevention of car accidents or of other risky behaviors? Maybe. That’s why we do it. Sadly, though, making such tracking “normal” will make it seem even more unnatural to let teens make mistakes without parental intervention. And that seems like a real loss.

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