Big Brother watch?

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, a company unveiled a digital watch fitted with a GPS tracker device. Very James Bond. But the device was not designed for English spies with a penchant for Maseratis and martinis. No, the GPS watch its official name isNum8– is aimed at parents who want to keep track of their children.

The company that makes the watch insists that it is not just another nail in the coffin of children’s right to roam. “Only 20% of children are now allowed to go out and play, says the chief executive of Lok8u (get it?). It’s my profound hope that Num8 will help parents feel more comfortable about letting their children go out to play.”

But will it?

I’m not so sure. Maybe it will encourage some parents to let their children play more freely outside – though you might ask what kind of freedom involves constantly updating mum and dad with your exact location to within three metres. But I suspect the watch will just crank up the anxiety for others. For a start, it reinforces the feeling that the world is a horribly dangerous place full of kidnappers, paedophiles and child slavery rings when it is not.

Technology designed to bring peace of mind also has a tendency to do the very opposite. Just look at what happened with the mobile phone, aka the longest umbilical cord in history. Because we can reach our children anytime, anywhere, we do. And if the phone is switched off, or out of range, for a moment, we panic – our child must be in danger, something must be wrong. Then there is the peer pressure: if everyone else is in 24/7 phone contact with their kids, then I must be a bad parent for failing to do the same.

But can we really guarantee round-the-clock electronic monitoring of our children? The makers of Num8 think so. The watch uses satellite and mobile phone networks to track kids indoors and outdoors. It also sends alerts if the Num8 is removed without permission. But what if a child wanders into a black zone where coverage is blocked or weak? Or the network crashes? What happens then to the peace of mind promised in the Num8 advertising?

And even if we could guarantee constant GPS monitoring of our children, is that really a good thing? I don’t think so. Thanks to the modern obsession with eliminating all doubt and danger from our kids’ lives, something important is getting lost the time and space for children to explore the world on their own terms, to take risks, to be completely alone sometimes, to break away gradually from the mother ship. There is nothing quite like the rush of pride a child feels when taking his first steps out into the world on his own walking alone to a friend’s house, or cycling to school by himself. Yet that accomplishment is diminished when you know your parents are anxiously tracking your every move on the home computer. The Num8 also makes it harder to let children go in stages because it is an all-or-nothing device: you either know exactly where your kid is at all times, or you don’t. This presents parents with an agonizing decision: at what age do you allow your child to leave home alone without the Num8? At 10? 15? Or maybe 25?

The bottom line is that the world is nowhere near as dangerous as we think, or as the overheated media portrays it. Children do not need to be electronically tagged like criminals. We could all be a lot less anxious if we ditched the electronic leashes and let kids roam freely as they have throughout history.

A final thought: My guess is that the Num8 will lead to an epidemic of false alarms. It is just such a tempting target for pranksters and bullies just yank it off a child’s wrist in the playground and wait for his hysterical parents (followed by a SWAT team) to come charging to the rescue….