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For every mother who ever told her kids she had eyes in the back of her head, modern technology can now do one better. It allows mom and dad to watch their child's every move even from across town. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, some wonder whether keeping such a close eye on kids does more harm than good.
TOVIA SMITH reporting:
Mark Pawlick says he used to live in constant worry about his teenage kids, especially his stepdaughter Jessica. Even at 10 years old growing up in a suburb north of Boston, Jessica Fairbanks was drinking and smoking, and had the other bad habit of constantly lying to her parents. So when it came time for her to get her driver's license, Jessica's parents were scared to death.
Mr. MARK PAWLICK (Concerned Parent): We were beside ourselves about what we would do. There was just no way I was really going to let her in that car without having some way of tracking where she was and where she was going.
SMITH: So Mark Pawlick bought what's called a Black Box and hid it in Jessica's car. By using global positioning system of GPS technology to fix its location every second or so, the device is essentially an electronic tattletale. It automatically e-mails or calls Pawlick every time Jessica drives too fast or goes somewhere she isn't supposed to.
Mr. PAWLICK: It was the only responsible thing we could do as parents so we did what we had to do.
SMITH: Pawlick set the boundaries, drawing virtual fences around kids' houses where Jessica isn't supposed to be hanging out or the café where she is supposed to be working. As soon as she crosses the line, mom and dad know about it and Jessica hears about it, like this day when he dad stops at the café after catching her speeding.
Mr. PAWLICK: You were doing 73.
Ms. JESSICA FAIRBANKS (Mr. Pawlick's Stepdaughter): Yes. I needed to get to work today.
Mr. PAWLICK: You know, think about what you're doing because it's not worth it.
SMITH: At first, Jessica says, she thought her parents had people spying on her. She only found out about the tracker from a friend who overheard their parents talking.
Ms. FAIRBANKS: And I was like, excuse me? Like, what do are you thinking? You don't trust me? No, I was livid for the first few months.
SMITH: But the idea of Big Mother looking over kids' shoulders is one that more and more teens are having to get used to. With GPS technology getting cheaper, smaller and better, most any cell phone can be a tracking device for just a few extra dollars a month.
A black box, like the one by Alltrack in Jessica's car, costs a few hundred to install, plus a monthly fee, but it also gives parents a way to retaliate in real time. For example, says Alltrack's Mark Allbaugh, when a kid is speeding, parents can remotely flash the car's lights or honk the horn until the kid slows down.
Mr. MARK ALLBAUGH (Alltrack): It gives them control. I mean it's a way to help keep your kids in line, I think.
SMITH: Parents, of course, have been trying to do that to their kids for as long as they've been having them. It's why many experts believe this new brand of electronic espionage will soon be as mainstream as cell phones themselves.
Mr. JIM KATZ (Director, Rutgers University Center for Mobile Communications Studies): I think over time parents will feel that if they don't have this they're not being good parents.
SMITH: Jim Katz is director of the Rutgers University Center for Mobile Communications Studies. Soon, he says, tiny cameras, like the ones in most new cell phone will enable parents to literally watch over their kids 24/7, and even eavesdrop on their conversations.
But Katz says all the new technology may give parents a false sense of security.
Mr. KATZ: We can't just assume that if the software reports that our kid stayed in school, they ate properly, and that they passed the test, that everything is okay with that kid.
SMITH: For one thing, the technology is not infallible. And for another, it doesn't take kids long to figure out how to game the system. For example, if he doesn't want to be tracked, a kid could simply turn off his cell phone or forget it at a friend's.
And as Jessica figured out, she could still get into trouble in someone else's car, even her dad's.
Ms. FAIRBANKS: I actually got pulled over this morning.
Mr. PAWLICK: Were you?
Ms. FAIRBANKS: In your truck going 63 in a 40 in Sandown(ph). I get away every time I get pulled over.
SMITH: That kind of teenage bravado is one of the reasons many child psychiatrists think these tracking devices are a bad idea. As a father, Massachusetts General Hospital child psychiatrist Steve Scholzman says he understand parents' temptation, but he says, keeping too close an eye on kids often backfires.
Dr. STEVE SCHOLZMAN (Child Psychiatrist, Massachusetts General Hospital): When kids feel crowded, they tend to do things that they actually might otherwise not do. You know, they'll take even greater risks, because they have a desire to sort of prove their independence and their individuality. So therefore there is something that they need to get away with.
Scholzman says tracking kids also undermines the trust that's critical to their development. He says kids need enough slack to learn to make good choices on their own, not just because they know mom and dad are watching.
Dr. SCHOLZMAN: That's the moment of growth. And you lose that if you monitor them. They won't grow up. They'll get stuck developmentally.
Mr. PAWLICK: Yeah. That's just psychobabble.
SMITH: As Mark Pawlick sees it, a tracking device is exactly what his daughter Jessica needed and deserved.
Mr. PAWLICK: She violated our trust. We didn't violate her trust. Trust is earned, it isn't given out. And when you have a kid you have to do what you have to do to make sure that they're safe.
SMITH: As Pawlick sees it, tracking systems can actually bolster kids' sense of independence, since mom and dad can monitor them from afar, instead of constantly nagging them with phone calls.
Ultimately, Pawlick believes his daughter will come to appreciate what he did as a sign of how much her parents cared about keeping her safe.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.