NEW YORK -- Now that many of our children have cell phones, wireless companies such as Sprint and Disney Mobile are offering models with GPS systems. This feature raises important questions that parents should consider about the nature of growing up, trust and the illusion of safety that technology perpetuates.
First, a confession: Unlike many parents, I have never believed that cell phones are essential.
My daughter's cell phone was a gift from her grandparents before she left Manhattan for college. My son, 16, bought his own that uses prepaid cards.
I wouldn't have bought them cell phones.
I don't subscribe to the belief that kids need a cell phone because we live in a "more dangerous world." Like many cities, New York is safer than it was 15 years ago. Today, it is not odd to see a fifth-grader traveling to school by herself. In 1990, you never saw such a sight outside of the most clannish and protective neighborhoods.
It's true that we live in a post-9/11 world, but I wonder how a cell phone would make a child safer should a bomb explode in Midtown Manhattan. First, as most people know, when the World Trade Center towers fell, cell phone service went down. There are no guarantees that they'd be a lifeline to children. Pay phones, however, remained operable.
Second, I coached my teenagers on what to do in an emergency. They are to use that information and their street smarts to make their way home or to another place of safety. They're certainly more apt to get relevant instructions from a police officer nearby than from me 100 blocks away, and I'd much rather have them concentrate on getting home than trying to relieve their anxiety and mine by trying to get in touch.
Of course, we parents occasionally read about kidnapped teenagers who save themselves by text messaging parents or friends. But ask yourself: Do you really want to exist in a reality in which you've convinced yourself that this one-in-10-million possibility may happen to you? I've found more peace of mind by sending my kids on their way with an expectation to arrive home at a certain hour and to have a $20 bill in their wallets for emergencies. Then I go about my business, and they go about theirs.
Which brings me to GPS. By themselves, cell phones can encourage an unhealthy dependence between children and parents. Having one in a backpack makes it too easy for kids to call up Mom or Dad to get advice on matters that they'd do well to figure out for themselves - such as what to do if their friends haven't shown up at the movie theater or if their boyfriend has left them. GPS devices go a step further, so that children know their parents can monitor their movements. This might make kids feel safe, but that type of safety is not what you want to instill. They need to be out and about, testing the waters, learning about the ways of the world and facing challenges that come their way.
Most important, how can you build a relationship of trust between parent and child when the child is tethered to a GPS? My teenagers have lied to me about where they've been or who they've been with. When I've caught them, we've had some important conversations. And they've faced penalties of restricted freedom and learned how much they value their mobility.
I've stood next to parents phoning their teenagers when the call wasn't answered. The response too often was, "Where is she? I wonder if something's happened!" Chances are the girl is fine; she hasn't answered because she's mad at her parent for calling three times that day. Can you imagine the anxiety you'll feel when you can't locate your child's present coordinates at the mall?
Cell phones can generate more worry than they relieve, and GPS will make you sweat even more.
James Vescovi, a writer and editor, is the father of three children. His e-mail is email@example.com.