Surveillance to Ensure Safety
As with issues concerning devices of connection and constraint, safety concerns are paramount when working – and middle-class parents consider adopting technological aids for surveillance. Parents say that if they have reason to believe that a child is in some kind of danger, they will turn to some piece of technology to obtain the information necessary to protect that child. Concerns about threats from outside are common; concerns about shifts in a child’s behavior are even more common.
Parents appear to know well the signs and portents that might indicate drug use or drinking among their children.4 They learn these by talking with other parents, venturing onto relevant websites, and reading handouts they receive from their children’s schools. Parents readily acknowledge that if they were to see changes in their children’s behavior, they would institute drug testing, in spite of what initially appears to be opposition to engaging in that practice. As one Hispanic, working-class mother of three children said of her daughter, “She’s not given me any reason to believe she’s doing drugs.” “But,” she continued, “if her behavior were to change, out of the ordinary, erratic, all the signs whatever, if things started adding up, I would definitely drug test.” A middle-class, African American mother of four was similarly inclined to consider the possibility of testing with one of her sons: “I can’t say no, never. … If [there were reason], I would definitely use [a home drug test]. If he comes in smelling like marijuana or his behavior’s different, I would definitely use it.”
The same kinds of indicators function as signals for parents to consider other surveillance technologies, especially if they believe the normal routes of communication have broken down. The Hispanic, working-class mother of three who would use a home drug testing kit if she saw “any reason to believe” one of her children was using drugs would also use a keystroke monitoring device “if the circumstances called for it.” A perhaps overly cautious mother, she included among suspicious circumstances her daughter’s going to the mall too often or always talking about a certain boy. A middle-class, white mother of two children said she thinks that keystroke monitoring would be “invasive” and that she “wouldn’t want anyone doing that” with her children. At the same time, however, this mother said if she thought her daughter “was into drugs or something or she was real depressed or didn’t talk to [her] or
something,” she wouldn’t hesitate to snoop. A white, working-class mother of three said she thinks there might be occasions when she would want to reconsider her initial negative decision about a GPS tracking device:
I think [the GPS tracking system is] probably a great tool. I haven’t felt the need to use it. . . . At this point I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt. [But I would use it] if they were showing some behavior that would lead me to believe that they were doing something harmful to themselves or going somewhere where they weren’t supposed to be.
Some working-class and middle-class parents were actually enthusiastic about the possibility of using these surveillance devices even if they haven’t yet seen signs indicating trouble. In Philadelphia, Danielle Jones, an African American, working-class mother of five, simply stated that she might be interested in looking over her child’s writings on the computer to check for the possibility of problematic behavior:
danielle: You know, if like the theory behind that is to find out who’s
doing what, and you can address those issues with that particular thing, I would use [the keystroke reading device]. interviewer: What kind of stuff would you be looking for?
DANIELLE: The drugs, the chatting, porn, just anything that I would
feel is inappropriate.
Darlene Walker, an African American, working-class mother of two children, said that she would “definitely” use a GPS tracking device when her daughter begins to drive. As was the case with Danielle Jones and Annemarie Fernandez, who was discussed in the previous chapter, Darlene expressed her belief that clear parental restrictions can actually free a child. And Darlene sees no more contradiction in the idea of tethered independence than do parents who talk about cell phones as providing for both autonomy and parental supervision:
Oh yeah, I’m definitely going to use that [car tracker], just to keep track of where she’s at, and so if something happens, I can track her. So I can give her a little independence, and while she’s still in those teenage years let her
family; he said he wouldn’t want to engage in drug testing “as a routine sort of thing,” and he added, “not with my children.” Other professional middle – class parents responded in similar language to questions about surveillance, whether through drug testing, GPS tracking, or keystroke monitoring: “Like I said, she’s a good kid now, and I’m not concerned”; “I have good kids; they’re not a surveillance problem. … I have very good kids.”
The elite parents my research assistants and I interviewed may well be right about their kids. Indeed, we may have found the parents with perfect children in each of the various locales in which we conducted our interviews. It is worth noting, however, not only that some of the parents did say that they think or know that their children have tried drugs or engaged in other potentially problematic behavior but that the precise kids they are talking about— children from “good” homes, high-achieving students, suburban dwellers—are frequently crossing into behavior that some might view as problematic. One recent study, for example, suggests that rates of drinking, smoking, drug use, and sexual activity are high among all high school students and that they are equally high in suburban and urban areas. Three-quarters (74 percent) of suburban twelfth graders have tried alcohol more than two or three times, whereas 71 percent of urban twelfth graders have done so; two-thirds of all suburban and urban twelfth graders have “had sex” (and 43 percent of suburban and 39 percent of urban teenagers have had sex with a person with whom they did not have a romantic relationship); about four out of ten twelfth graders in suburban schools have used illegal drugs; the same statistics apply for urban twelfth graders.9 (Moreover, if the adolescent children of the professional middle-class parents are not now drinking, using drugs, or having sex, they are likely to engage in these activities at the colleges to which they are headed.)10 That is, the parents we interviewed might be right; they might also have their heads in the sand.