Breaking a Link
Although I have linked baby monitors and cell phones, it is time to break that link. After all, cell phones are not baby monitors (cell phones, for example, require the participation of two parties), and teens are not infants (and therefore can resist as well as participate in the use of a monitoring device). Moreover, cell phones appear to provide somewhat greater freedom to children, albeit with increased monitoring and connection through the “electronic tether,” and this is true within all socioeconomic groupings.’8
Anna Benton, a white, professional middle-class mother from northern California, talked without irony about how tethering allowed her children of sixteen and thirteen to have greater autonomy: “It made me slightly more comfortable and made them more independent, because I knew I could stay
from northern Vermont told a story about some other children who had gone across the border into Canada while staying in touch with their parents. Their parents did not know where they were and assumed that they were where they said they were. This mother generalized that deceit to the possibility that at least one of her own children could, on occasion, have been dishonest with her:
I think once we had computers and cell phones and things like that, gone was really the ease of knowing what sort of planning was going on between your children and their friends, who was calling, who were they talking to. They’re on the cell phone or online, [and] you don’t have a clue who they are talking to. And if our children did this, I don’t know about it, but it could happen. I don’t know. I did hear stories of kids who with their cell phones were able to travel farther from home and do things and keep it hidden from their parents. For example, I have a friend whose daughter went to Montreal. They were underage. Her parents would have told her, no, she couldn’t, and what they did—I’m sure this happens a lot—they used cell phones [to say they were somewhere where they weren’t]. Probably of the three, if anybody would have done it, it would have been [my middle child, who is now twenty-two]. I don’t know that he ever did.
Other parents similarly acknowledge that the cell phone has the drawback of their not knowing to whom their children are talking as they would on a landline; and they say that there is more room for children to have relationships of which the parents are totally unaware.20 In response, some parents monitor not just whereabouts but phone activity itself, checking over call lists and making sure that they know—and approve of—every name on the list. Paula Brown, a white college administrator and mother of two teens, for example, said this was her approach:
Text messaging, I’m definitely reading them. She knows I am. Our phone is kind of a community family phone, and so we’ll say, “So, Emily, you left this message, and somebody left this message back for you,” or even saying, “I don’t recognize the name” [or] “Who is Sean? How do you know him? Why would he be calling you?” and talking about text messaging, saying, “Why are they text messaging you at midnight?” I’m talking [to them] about the time, talking about the message.
For the most part parents do not see disadvantages to providing their children with cell phones, but when pressed and asked explicitly about this issue, they do acknowledge that cell phones might undermine their children’s emerging autonomy—even as they say they grant somewhat more independence to their children than they might have done if they could not stay in touch. For the professional middle-class parents who already find it difficult to find the appropriate balance between being involved in a child’s life and encouraging children to take responsibility for their own actions, the introduction of a technology that allows for ongoing and instantaneous connection becomes the instrument through which that difficulty is enacted, and even intensified. Having decided that rules should be flexible and open to negotiation, professional middle-class parents find their children more than willing to enter the fray. Working-class and middle-class parents talk less about negotiation. Although they too allow their children to use cell phones, they do so more often to check that their children are abiding by the limits they have set.
Working-class and middle-class parents eagerly seek out devices that help them maintain connection, such as baby monitors for infants and cell phones for older children. They view these devices as aids to help them keep their children safe. Working-class and middle-class parents also view the cell phone as a way to monitor teens. A cell phone creates opportunities for random checks: an adolescent might never know when she or he is going to be called and asked to account for her or his actions.
Professional middle-class parents value these devices of connection for many of the same reasons. In addition, the professional middle-class parents value these devices because they allow for close contact between parent and child and immediate responsiveness to a child. The intensely close relationship between professional middle-class parents and their children underwrites their attitude toward cell phones and baby monitors: parents want to know immediately if their children need (or simply want) them. The intensely close relationship between professional middle-class parents and their children is also abetted by cell phones and baby monitors: parents can stay attuned to infants and respond quickly to whimpers of discontent; parents can send and receive messages that keep them up-to-date with the minutiae of their children’s lives. But it is hard to believe that this closeness requires either of those two devices: as the foregoing discussion suggests, the underlying motivations for the desire to be close have broader roots than technology alone. Nor does the negotiation about limits that so befuddles the professional middle-class parent depend on the constant contact through cell phone technology, even if cell phones make that negotiation ever more likely to occur.