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Electronic surveillance is easily one of the biggest changes to parenting in the last decade. Today we can watch our kids with nanny cams, track their location with GPS watches and scan through their text messages and browser histories using a variety of spyware. Cellphones now make it easy to keep track of our kids’ whereabouts; in fact, many new products such as the Family Locator and Kid Tracker apps specifically target parental fear and anxiety for their children’s safety. The decision whether to monitor children and to what extent is a common parental dilemma on which you and your spouse may not see eye to eye.

You may think it is permissible to track your child while they have access with your former spouse for safety reasons or worse, as a means to gather evidence that your spouse is lying about where they take your child during their access time. However, you run the risk of violating privacy and criminal laws, which will render the evidence inadmissible in court. Courts are also increasingly sending a message that they will not reward a parent (and may even punish) who interferes with access rights of the other parent.

Societal changes also play a significant role in surveillance technologies becoming part of family life. When you were a child, your parents were more likely to live in close-knit communities which allowed for informal surveillance by friends, neighbours and relatives. Today, people tend to live apart from their families and friends, and are less likely to know their neighbours. Parental fear has undoubtedly led to increased surveillance and the belief that tracking and spying is part of being a good parent.

It’s understandable to want to ensure your child’s safety when you aren’t around both online and elsewhere. Many experts advise against installing tracker apps without a child’s knowledge because the breakdown of trust and mutual respect that often results can lead to much bigger problems. Studies show that the children who were not being tracked were more likely to share details of their lives with their parents. When surveillance is taken as a sign of a lack of trust, this can result in children becoming secretive and reluctant to share information with parents.

Additionally, psychologists have suggested that substituting discussion and education with tracking devices can have a negative impact on children because it takes away valuable opportunities for children to learn how to evaluate and manage risks themselves. Parents should teach their children to be independent and to be able to cope with risks and dangers that are part of life. Such technologies may ultimately deprive children of the opportunity to exercise autonomy and independence and build critical thinking skills which would, in turn, better prepare them to assess and manage risks across a broad range of life experiences.

Worryingly, these trackers minimize the importance of privacy and normalize constant surveillance, especially for children who are more suggestible. Children learn through experience, so if they are not afforded privacy in their daily lives, they may not learn how to appropriately establish and advocate for their own privacy or safely navigate social boundaries as they become adults. Additionally, they may not know when to withhold disclosing personal information. Your child’s age plays a significant role in their appreciation of the implications of being tracked. Monitoring practices should align with their stage of development.

If you feel tracking technology is necessary to protect your child, you should communicate its purpose to your child and emphasize that your child still needs to be careful when they aren’t with you. The bottom line is technology can’t completely protect your child and talking to them about risks and responsibility are important whether you use trackers or not. Ultimately, trusting your child to make the right decisions and giving them the freedom to do so is an essential part of developing independence and growing up.