By shadowing our children and using technology to keep tabs on their movements, their digital communication, and their time, are parents eliminating kids’ ability to take necessary risks or have an inner life? At The New Yorker, novelist and essayist Jess Row explores what he calls the “culture of constant supervision,” which is another phrase for about anxious, overprotective parenting. Drugs, abductions, vape, driving while texting — the world is full of dangers, sure, but when children rarely get to be truly alone, our protections carry hidden costs. Row isn’t suggesting parents quit monitoring their kids’ whereabouts or online lives. He’s conflicted and trying to work through the pros and cons of intensely attentive parenting, because he wants to find the best way to parent his own children.
As my children get older, I’m realizing how profoundly my instincts have been shaped by this culture of constant supervision, which wants to believe that it’s the same thing as intimacy. I still prefer it, over all, to the enormous distance that I sometimes felt as a teen-ager toward my parents. But I want to ask: Who is speaking up, today, for a young person’s right to a private life, to secrets, unshared thoughts, unmonitored conversations and relationships? Phrasing it this way sounds dangerous, and also counterintuitive: Don’t teen-agers and young adults today accept that technology is embedded in every aspect of their lives, that just being alive means being present (at least to some degree) online? My daughter, just coming into her own digital domain, certainly does: she has her own phone and laptop, ostensibly for homework, is allowed to text and chat with her friends, and desperately wants her own social-media accounts. Kids her age seem to accept, reluctantly, that the price of having a social life is having their parents one step away from everything they do, sharing the same accounts, playlists, search histories. We’re the ones who regulate her time online (and use the indispensable plug-in Freedom to keep her offline while she’s studying, just as we use it ourselves). When we notice an item that warrants a conversation—a questionable YouTube search, for example—we talk about it. At length. We’ve already had more family conversations on issues related to sex—sometimes in the form of extremely contemporary tangents, related to Cardi B’s taste in shoes or Stormy Daniels’s career choices—than I ever had with my parents.