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Parenting with a Virtual Leash
January 26th, 2010

The days of wondering where your kids are may be a thing of the past for parents who take advantage of modern technology
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by Rebecca Edwards

Many parents bemoan the world of modern technology -- blaming it for short attention spans, obesity, and lack of imagination in our youth. I, however, have embraced the technology of the 21st century as a modern-day crystal ball into the activities and whereabouts of would-be devious teenagers.

Earlier this year I was alarmed by a call from my younger daughter's school counselor. The counselor informed me that my daughter's friends had reported some things they had talked about that made them concerned for Gabi's well being. After several conversations and much investigation, security was raised to ORANGE ALERT: Freedom of movement was restricted, certain friends were placed on the "watch list" and there was much more "quality time" spent at home with me; but my favorite (and I believe most ingenious) development was the full and unrestrained exploitation of the bane (and, dare I say, blessing) of the 21st century parent: the cell phone.

My older daughter actually suggested this practice a few years ago. She said that if I wanted to verify what they were doing I should just have them take a picture on their cell phone and send it to me. I have used this technique on and off over the past couple years, but recent events made it a daily occurrence.

kids in digital age

Every day after school I sent Gabi a text: "Send me a pic that ur alive and well." I will ask again if she changes location and/or companions. I get the cutest pictures back of her with her friends, proudly displaying their completed homework or arriving safely at their destination (with parents in the background to verify adult supervision as applicable).

It has occurred to me to add other confirmation of date and time (kids are sneaky and they will store pics and try to fool you!) by displaying either the day's newspaper or, perhaps, a screen shot of CNN or E! News (I'll know if it's accurate!) in the background.

When I first bought cell phones for my daughters they were 13 and 10. Many people thought I was being extravagantly indulgent; however, as a single mother who traveled across the country for work I saw no better way to keep tabs on my kids in Bountiful, Utah while I was doing my job in Hoboken, Chicago or Seattle. Thanks to advances in technology I could even take it to a new level by using GPS tracking tools to know their exact location. Since both my girls now have iPhones, all I'd need to do is purchase the app.

Digital Age Parenting

While technology has created a new "playground" for bullying and other predatory behaviors, it has virtually made the days of wondering where your kids are obsolete. Back in the 80's my parents had no reasonable means to proactively monitor my whereabouts, and without even the basic technology of caller ID, were really incapable of verifying what I told them without leaving the house and tracking me down. Compared to the views afforded me via cell phones, MySpace and Facebook, my parents were operating blind.

I'm not trying to violate personal privacy, accountability or trust, but as a parent in the modern world I am willing to risk some invasion in order to maintain safety for my children.

"I was talking to my mom the other day," a friend of mine shared, "And she said that if she had young children in this day and age she would make sure that they had a cell phone." My friend shared this after being given a hard time for giving her boys (ages eight and five) cell phones for Christmas. Her decision to get cell phones into their small hands was driven by a frightening incident at their school where no one -- not even teachers or school administration -- could find her kindergartner after school let out. The search lasted about 30 minutes, and that was all it took for her to embrace the security of arming him with a cell phone.

The sense of security is not infallible, since she has to trust that a five year old will keep the phone on him and actually answer if called, but it's an easy option that, to her, is worth trying. Other downsides of cell phones include keeping your kids from texting obsessively (my daughters have texted over 15,000 messages in a month -- that's 500 texts/day) and the bastardization of texting known as "sexting," where kids send each other naked pics and/or lewd messages.

In addition to cell phones, I also use MySpace and Facebook to keep an eye on my kids and to get to know the people they're hanging out with. My girls' participation on social networking sites is dependent on them having me as a "friend." This decision was made to try to keep them safe in the seemingly scary cyber-landscape. Stories of kids being bullied on MySpace to the point of suicide scared many parents, including me.

There is no doubt that technology has altered the world our kids live in and the ways in which we can parent them. Many parents eschew technology, but with over 70% of all teens owning cell phones and many homes no longer using a home phone, I feel that it is important for us to not only use technology to keep our kids safe, but to teach them how to use it with respect, courtesy and boundaries. The virtual social scene is no less treacherous for kids to navigate, and if we don't take the time to learn about and understand it, they will be on their own to figure it out.

Not long ago Gabi asked me how long my visual verification of her activities and whereabouts was going to last. I told her until she turns 18. She said, "It's really annoying." I responded, "Tell me about it."

But I love her enough to exploit every aspect of modern technology that I have to, to keep that kid alive and well into adulthood.

If you liked this article about parenting, you might also like this story about the desperate need for child advocates in this Utah, this article about a teen's opinion on the "I Pledge Video," or this artilce about the debate surrounding child autism.

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