parent trap

An Indian father who uses CCTV cameras at home asks: ‘Are we outsourcing parenting to technology?’

Is technology helping modern parents stay connected to their kids or is watching your children 24/7 a violation of their privacy?

A few months ago, I went against my happy-go-lucky nature and installed CCTV cameras at home. This decision was not taken to deter burglars (barring an outdated flat-screen television, my malware-ridden laptop and a few hundred books, I hardly keep anything of value at home) or to feel secure (I imagine I don’t have that many enemies). No, the reason I went into 1984 mode was due to a spike in my parental paranoia.

As the father of a two-year-old, I am often shaken by the headlines of crimes against children splattered across newspapers these days. Because most such instances seem to take place in schools or playgrounds, parents often tend to overlook the possibility of them taking place at home. The rat race of urban life has meant that my wife and I, like many young professionals, have had to hire people to take care of our son in our absence and are often anxious when we are not at home.

A vicious cycle

Urban parents are increasingly finding themselves in a Catch-22 of sorts. On one hand, the cost of living in metropolitan cities is rising, which is why both parents find themselves climbing up their individual career ladders to contribute to the household. On the other hand, this modern arrangement where both parents are working beggars an important question: who is looking after the kids?

Children have been brought up by ayahs and nannies and even governesses (if you grew up in a tony neighbourhood) for centuries. However, the joint family structure meant that children and their caretakers were always supervised by a member of the family. This is changing and has been for quite some time.

As joint families gave way to nuclear families, parents like us started depending more and more on nannies. But no matter how unquestioningly you trust the nanny, it only takes a viral video or a widely publicised case of abuse or a Savdhaan India episode to get your parental alarm bells ringing, even if irrationally.

Also, unlike in the past, nannies are in high demand and short supply. We’ve had over 20 ayahs in the last two years because they have to live in nuclear families and take time off frequently to tend to their own children as they, too, no longer have the support of family members. It is due to this constant reshuffling of trust that we find ourselves depending on technology.

Surveillance in schools

The Delhi government’s decision in January to install CCTV cameras in all government schools and make the feed available to parents in real time, via a smartphone app, has sparked a debate on surveillance. While there are some who welcome the move in wake of some high-profile crimes in the Capital, others question if putting children under perpetual surveillance is necessary, seeing as it is a violation of privacy and may lead to a dilution of accountability.

My own thoughts on this are divided. Since the installation of the cameras at home, my paranoia seems to have subsided. This is the next best thing to being physically present and helps us keep tabs on what happens in our absence. Modern cameras come equipped with two-way audio, which is handy as it allows us to give instructions to the nanny in real time and maintain a dialogue with our son. It provides reassurance to some degree. However, I do think there’s a difference between monitoring a toddler and subjecting an entire classroom to surveillance.

Modern times, modern worries

When I recall my own early childhood, I remember a distinct lack of technology around the house. My mother always encouraged me to read. My reading took a temporary hit in the mid-1990s with the arrival of cable television and internet. For a boy of 12, the sudden switch from repeat Doordarshan telecasts to a plethora of international content was mind-boggling. As for the internet, for a while one could throw a rock in any direction and hit a cybercafé but soon it became more affordable and home computers became the norm.

I mention this only to provide a context of the evolution of technology. Children these days may take the technology in their palm for granted but it was released to my generation in installments. While I saved money separately to buy a camera and CDs and books and DVDs and videogames (and prioritise accordingly), teenagers today get all this and more in one sleek smartphone. And yet, while so much has changed, some things remain the same.

My parents worried about me talking to strangers on Yahoo and ICQ chat rooms, their parents worry about them talking to strangers on Facebook. My parents worried about me playing violent videogames, their parents worry about them playing the Blue Whale challenge. My parents worried about me watching pornographic videos; their parents worry about them making pornographic MMS videos.

Permissible screen time

It’s rather ironic that many tech gurus like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs, who got the world addicted to their wares, keep their own children away from the temptations of computer devices and social media. Perhaps they had some foreknowledge of the addiction they were embedding within their creations and how it can often entrap the average human’s psyche in what is now known as the “feedback loop”.

Child experts recently asked Facebook to scrap its Messenger Kids app which is targeted at 6- to 12-year olds because it may undermine healthy childhood development. Never before in human history have we had children grow up with so many gadgets and the distractions of social media. The long-term effects of this can only be seen in the future, but there are already indications that children who spend the most time online report psychological distress and have difficulty in social interactions.

My mother, who thinks we are overreacting, reminds me that I used to walk from school to home every day. I have to remind her in turn that we live in an era where even school buses are attacked by violent mobs. Also, while the TV channels in my day were strictly censored, kids today are only a swipe or two away from adult content. The parents I spoke to unanimously decried the dangers of leaving children at the mercy of supposedly child-friendly YouTube playlists, which randomly switch to graphic and sexualized cartoons. Almost all of them have installed apps like MamaBear and Qustodio which regulate their children’s access to the internet.

One step at a time

I recommend Leela Kids, an app which curates podcasts for children depending on age and subject matter. Then there are apps like ClassDojo and Google Classroom, which break down complicated lessons on any topic with interesting video tutorials and educational cartoons. There are also several browsers which help kids safely surf the internet and apps like mSpy, which can help you inconspicuously monitor your child’s smartphone usage. GPS tags which can help parents keep track of their children are also increasingly becoming commonplace. Recently, I even saw an ad for Emotix Miko, which is touted as India’s first companion robot made for children.

The latest season of Black Mirror, a TV series which aims to present the perils of technology, had an episode in which an overprotective mother gets her daughter microchipped in order to keep a watch on her. Predictably, this has a devastating effect on their relationship. I thought of this episode when I heard of the Delhi government’s CCTV drive.

The parent-child relationship is an exercise in building trust and it is difficult to assess where the lines between protection, privacy and control overlap in such an arrangement. One thing is certain, though: we do not want to reach a stage where parenthood is outsourced to technology, a place where we need an app for quality family time.

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