Electronically tracking kids is paranoid parenting

As tracking devices to be put on individuals are being tested, we need to consider whether this is really the right route to take.


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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Jenrick Group: Project Engineer

£33000 - £35000 per annum + Pension and holidays: The Jenrick Group: Project E...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Technician

£35200 per annum + Pension and holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Engine...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing specialist merchant co...


£20000 - £30000 per annum + OTE £50k: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 bus...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'