What, Me Worry? The Rise of Stealth Parenting

A mother loses sight of her young daughter at a park. For a few terrifying moments she fears the worst, but soon all is well. A new product offers Mom the reassurance she seeks—a chip that can be implanted in her daughter’s brain with a corresponding app that lets Mom monitor her daughter’s whereabouts and erase any distressing sounds or imagery in the environment.

Although the daughter is kept “safe,” she is emotionally immature and becomes a social outcast. A psychologist persuades Mom to stop using the app (the chip cannot be removed). But as the daughter ages and starts to engage in risky teenage behaviors, Mom feels the need to monitor and manipulate her daughter’s life once again. When the now sixteen-year-old daughter catches on to what Mom’s up to, she grabs Mom’s tablet and beats her unconscious with it. Then she flags down a truck driver and hops a ride out of town.

This is a scene from a 2017 episode of Black Mirror, the British anthology TV series. Set in a near-future world, it illustrates how technology alters human behavior. In this episode, “Arkangel,” director Jodie Foster portends a futuristic version of helicopter parenting that may be closer at hand than we realize.

mom with teen daughter
Is surveillance technology making kids and adults safer or more afraid? (Twenty20 @maginnis)

Helicopter parenting comes in the form of the worrywart who needs to constantly touch base with their child; the concierge who handles most transactional aspects of their child’s life; and the authoritarian who mandates what their child must do all the time. This new parenting paradigm was first identified in 1990, and it went on to radically change childhood in middle- and upper-middle- class communities in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere. Psychologists report that these behaviors stem from a parent’s personal insecurities, overblown fears, and need for control.

Facing mounting criticism in the last decade and a half, helicopter parents protest that they simply love their children and want the best for them, and they point to what I call short-term “gains”: Under a parent’s close watch, children are kept safer, make fewer mistakes, are shielded from unpleasant outcomes, and meet parents’ expectations for their behavior and accomplishments.

From that angle, it sounds like a recipe for success. Yet the long-term pains from helicopter parenting became evident when the first wave of children raised this way finished high school and began to leave home.

The first children subjected to the first playdates in 1984 became the first college students in the late 1990s whose parents couldn’t let go and the first members of a generation deemed by employers and the media as “failing to launch.” Their parents didn’t let go, in part, because they had always over-helped—so why stop now, in college, when the stakes are even higher, their thinking went. But their children were in fact less capable than typical young adults of the same age because they had been so over-helped in childhood.

Beyond having underdeveloped life skills and workplace readiness, such young adults tend to have higher rates of anxiety and depression, are more likely to be medicated for anxiety and depression, and have greater rates of separation anxiety. Point being, when it comes to psychological wellness, it turns out that there are things even worse than not having everything go right for you. If someone does everything for you—instead of letting you try to do things for yourself and learn from your mistakes—they literally deprive you of a chance to develop a healthy selfThis is called self-efficacy, and it’s in short supply in overparented children.

Contrary to what some pundits and psychologists suggest, the smartphone didn’t cause helicopter parenting. It was already in full swing at the college level in 2007, which is when the smartphone arrived. But the smartphone is a technological “enabler.” Referred to by researchers as “the world’s longest umbilical cord,” it allowed parents of college students to start texting their “children” throughout the day—to check up on what they were doing, how they were faring, and what was happening next.

By the late 2010s, college—which used to be characterized by freedom and independence—was now interruptible by parent texts and phone calls. Students were just as likely to be talking with their parents as with their friends before and after class. Most alarming to me was that the students themselves didn’t seem to mind.

Closeness between parents and kids is of course a good thing—kids (and grown-ups) need human connection almost more than anything else. To be sure, we parents are physically closer to our kids than ever, reluctant to ever let them out of our sight, and more aware of their goings-on. Isn’t that a good thing? It depends.

Train a more focused lens on connections between parents and kids today. Drive by your local elementary school pickup line, stand on the sidelines after a kid’s soccer game, go into a restaurant at dinnertime, watch a kid doing homework at the dining table, and you’re likely to see parents there, focused on a device. Is that connection? Listen to their conversations. They’re likely to be about how their kid did on a test, whether they’ve started their homework and how much of it they have, and what they can do to run faster, swing harder, score more goals, or get higher grades. Missing are open-ended questions about how their kid is doing or feeling, and conversations about nothing at all or about life.

As the author Jessica Lahey’s work on intrinsic motivation shows, kids need autonomy as well as connection—room to think, space to try and fail and try again, and time to be by themselves for a while to get things done on their own.

Our obsession with knowing every detail about our kid and capturing and sharing it with others might be encroaching on our kid’s need for autonomy. It might be more about our own insecurities than what’s right for our kids. I can’t help it: I feel for these children. I’m rooting for Gen Zers to develop an app that allows them to take the entire public record their parents created about them and wipe it clean.

Back in the day, a helicopter parent could affect only so many outcomes. But technology has marched forward, and with a fingertip and a screen, they can know where their kids are, see what they’re doing, instantly know how they performed, and jump on it. Tech companies are profiting from parents’ fears, and products arrive on the market before psychologists can say whether they’re safe for kids.

Exhibit A is the “parent grades portal.” At the start of the last decade, some software genius down the road from me in Silicon Valley introduced a feature into the K–12 schooling landscape that gives parents unlimited access to a teacher’s gradebook. Many parents report checking it obsessively throughout the day. Often they learn of test results before their kid does. Instead of coming home to a snack, kids now come home to an inquisition: “You got a C on the science test? I thought we studied for that!” School becomes about frequent assessment and judgment instead of learning.

Then came location-tracking apps, which give parents peace of mind about their kid’s whereabouts. “He missed his curfew but at least I know where he is,” says the sheepish mom. When I ask parents why they use this technology, they usually say that the world is scarier and less safe today. Yet that’s patently untrue; the rates of all types of violent crime have fallen steadily since the 1970s. Childhood was less safe when we were young, and none of us needed GPS tracking to stay alive. What has increased, however, is parents’ fear that their kids are in peril if they aren’t constantly monitored.

Then there’s the ubiquitous webcam, which lets parents monitor the yard, front door, and every room inside the house. A guy sitting next to me on a plane watched his family come and go through the living room and got annoyed when one of his kids left a pair of shoes behind. “Pick up your shoes,” he barked from thirty-five thousand feet, presumably through a virtual-assistant device. I don’t know how the kid felt, but it sure creeped me out.

Taken together, these technologies have birthed what I call the “Stealth Parent,” who uses surveillance to assuage their fears and exert their need for control. Kids are effectively monitored 24/7/365, whether at home, in school, or out in the world without us.

Being subjected to constant monitoring—a fate once reserved for those who were a threat to themselves or others, such as incarcerated persons and patients in psych wards—has become life as usual for many children. Gizmo now makes a “wearable” device for young children that lets parents call them for dinner and monitor their whereabouts. How many years will it be before some company offers an implanted chip?

Helicopter parents have existed for over three decades. Anxiety and depression are on a steady rise in both children and adults.

Now comes surveillance technology and Stealth Parenting. Are they making kids and adults safer or more afraid?

It may be more expedient to let a chip inside a diaper tell us that our kid needs changing, but shouldn’t our own senses alert us? Does it enhance or inhibit our connection when we yell at a kid from an airplane? Is our kid learning any lessons when they miss curfew, but we don’t mind as long as we can see their blinking GPS dot? Is obsessively hitting refresh on the K–12 grades portal helping or hurting our relationship with our kid and their teachers?

Stealth Parents outsource to technology the one thing that we are uniquely positioned to do: parent our young. Inside our kids’ developing brains—where we’re supposed to be instilling love, trust, and connection—we’re sending the message: I don’t think you can be successful without me. This undermines their chance to build self-efficacy, a fundamental tenet of the human psyche. Without it, anxiety and depression bloom.

When I was a college dean, the majority of helicoptered students did not seem to mind all the help their parents gave them. But as the years went on, they began to grapple with what they could and could not do for themselves, their ability to cope with what life threw their way, and their continuing dependence. It began to dawn on them that something was amiss. One late twentysomething told me that, even though he was now in law school, his mother called him three times a day to check up on him. One day, he snapped. “Your voice is the only voice in my head,” he screamed at her. “I need to hear my own voice!” He threw the phone across the room, and it was years before he spoke to her again.

I envision a future day when psychologists publish longitudinal studies correlating psychosis with being surveilled throughout childhood. If at some point, as contemplated by Black Mirror’s “Arkangel,” the kids stand up for themselves and take matters into their own hands—forgive me, but I’ll be rooting for the kids.

Which side of History

Excerpted from Which Side of History? How Technology is Reshaping Democracy and Our Lives – “What, Me Worry? The Rise of Stealth Parenting” by Julie Lythcott-Haims. Published by Chronicle Prism. Copyright © 2020 by Common Sense Media.

About Julie Lythcott-Haims

Author of the New York Times bestselling book How to Raise an AdultJulie Lythcott-Haims served as dean of freshmen at Stanford University for a decade.

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