A few days ago, the BBC and Tech Crunch reported a troubling story from Saudi Arabia. A gentleman was with his wife at the airport when he received an automated text message telling him that his wife intended to cross the border. On investigation, it was revealed that these text alerts will now be sent as standard when Saudi women attempt to leave the country. This use of technology to enforce archaic values is chilling, but sadly, it’s not as far away from home as we might think.
Take a moment to imagine that someone has hijacked your phone and installed software with the express purpose of diligently tracking your every action. At the touch of a button, they can pinpoint your location on a map, find out exactly who you’re meeting with and get alerts when you visit pre-listed locations. All of your interactions on Facebook are open to scrutiny. Worse still, even though you know it’s happening, there is no way of opting out or turning it off.
For most of us, this level of intrusion falls well outside our personal comfort zone. But sadly, this isn’t a hypothetical scenario: this is precisely the functionality of MamaBear, a disturbing smartphone app built with the aim of making parenting “worry-free”. The app is installed on your child’s smartphone and works in tandem with a parental companion app, which fretful mummies can use to pinpoint their child’s location at all times. Parents can set up a plethora of alerts to tell tales when their child steps out of pre-set boundaries, types a swearword or connects with someone their parents don’t want them to speak to. If this seems appropriate for, perhaps, an eight-year old, note that the app is also designed to reveal how fast your child is driving.
The promotional language of MamaBear is similarly telling: “Tame some of your anxiety”, “Get the peace of mind you deserve”. Make no mistake: this is not about keeping anyone safe; it’s about validating and pandering to parental paranoia.
When it comes to young people, our attitude towards privacy creates an interesting paradox. Children are told that passwords are to be kept secret, that telling sensitive information like your location is dangerous and wrong. But when it’s mum or dad who wants to know; suddenly no private exchanges are off-limits. Parents need unfettered access to their child’s social media accounts and their smartphone because that’s how they show they care.
Of course, one of the problems with this approach is that most children explore online social networks at the point in their development when personal relationships with peers are starting to eclipse filial relationships. If you’re a teenager who’s been told mum has a right to examine your text messages and log in your Facebook account because she needs to look out for you, how will you respond when your best friend or your first boyfriend expects the same privileges?
There’s no question that the ways we connect have changed and it would be naïve to think that the expectations we have of children will stay the same. The next generation of young people will have challenges our own parents wouldn’t have thought to consider. If they are to navigate these difficult issues through to adulthood, we should be mindful not to endorse the gradual creep of technology that can’t be handled responsibly, whether that’s a child with a smartphone, a government border patrol or a distrustful parent.
Annie Macfarlane is head of community management at Yomego
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