Back in 1948 clever old George Orwell foresaw many of the potentially sinister things we now take for granted – screens in every room, cameras of various sorts here there and everywhere, European dollars, metrication, the ‘thought police’ in their multifarious forms and much more.
They no longer seem particularly intrusive because we’ve grown used to them – which, of course, was part of Orwell’s point.
But, as far as I recall Nineteen Eighty Four doesn’t feature tracking devices attached to individuals, so that other people can monitor their movements.
We’ve been familiar with versions of this for some time. Offenders out of prison on licence are often ‘tagged’. Some elderly people wear electronic help-summoning devices for emergencies. Now, however, there are companies beginning to market GPS tracking devices which people can use to monitor the movements of children, partners, or even dogs. Devices such as the Amber Alert GPS and the Securus sZoom, both specifically designed for child tracking, are beginning to catch on in America.
Good idea? Well, if you were the parents of a child who has gone missing, you could be forgiven for thinking that yes, such a device might – just might – have kept them safe. But they are one of a tiny, tiny number, thank goodness. And the chances of any other child meeting a similar fate are so infinitesimal that it is statistically insignificant, although that is not to deny or belittle the horror of such a tragedy when it happens.
We do need to heed the statistics and keep a sense of proportion, however. If you put a tracking device on your child so that you know where s/he is every moment of the day are you not preventing the development of independence?
How is a child ever to learn to make journeys unaccompanied or take responsibility for his or her own personal safety if parents have never let go of the toddler reins – or an electronic version of them?
Only last week I was talking to a 20 something woman who told me, in astonishment, that when she arrived at university, aged 18, she met many students who’d never used a bus or a train on their own. No wonder they were floundering with everyday life and arguably a bit of a danger to themselves in their ignorance and inexperience.
Part of growing up is to learn to assess risk. And although it has been ridiculed, I think that Dedham Primary School near Colchester, which teaches its four year-olds to do this, is probably onto something ).
"Children need to get lost a few times."
Children need to get lost a few times. The first time I went on a train alone, aged 11, I got off at the wrong station but I lived to tell the tale. I simply had to find a way of dealing with it. It was a learning experience. For the record, I asked a woman with a young child for advice – as my mother had long told me to do in emergencies. Then I called home from a phone box and my father told me how to get to where I was supposed to be.
When my own children were that sort of age we used, quite deliberately, to send them to visit grandparents by train – and then occasionally on a specific errand involving public transport. We could have driven them but didn’t - in the belief that they needed to learn to travel independently, making decisions for themselves as they went along.
Had they been wearing tracking devices it wouldn’t have been real experience. They would have known that they weren’t really alone. A parent sufficiently paranoid to insist on a device would still, to all intents and purposes, be hovering in the background.
All that, of course, was before the era of universal mobile phones. Today I would equip children with cheap (not the sort of thing anyone would bully or beat them up for) mobile phones and ensure they always had credit and charge. That way a child can always contact a parent if s/he needs to. But, until the decision to phone, the child is independent.
I can’t see that tracking devices would ever catch on much in Britain anyway. The vast majority of British children under 11 are – misguidedly perhaps, but that’s another issue – driven or taken to school by adults. Most are never allowed out of their parents’ sight, or that of other adults in charge, which doesn’t do much to help them grow up.
Once children start secondary school more of them travel, to school at least, unsupervised. But how many teenagers are going to consent to wear or carry a tracking device as if they were criminals or vulnerable/elderly people? It’s hard to think of anything less ‘cool’ or more inhibiting. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with it, had such a thing existed, when I was – say- 14 and neither, I’m sure, would my children, a generation later.
Everything I’ve written here, of course, assumes that we’re talking about well cared for children living in orderly households. There are, as we all know, others who are nothing like so fortunate: the ‘feral’ kids whose parents are constantly told by courts, police, social workers, teachers et al that they have a responsibility to know where their children are and what they’re doing. But they don’t. These are the children Michael Gove said yesterday are ‘actively harmed’ by growing up in chaotic households.
Tracking devices aren’t the answer for those children either. Can you imagine social workers trying to insist first that the children take them and second that parents use them? No, as Gove asserts, some more radical form of intervention is the only hope.
So I shan’t be buying shares in companies selling person-monitoring tracking devices. Maybe unscrupulous private detectives or suspicious spouses could find a morally dubious use for them but it isn’t going to be parents – I hope.