It’s become a fact of life for parents that their children will have access to the internet. As more and more entertainment, educational services and social hubs move online the level of exposure will only increase. Unfortunately, with the highly unregulated nature of the web, it can be a staggering task making sure that your children don’t come in to contact with undesirable or even harmful content.
Enter Windows 8 Family Safety. Family Safety is a new feature coming to Windows 8 that allows a parent to track the internet usage of various users or devices on a network. The information provided is surprisingly detailed, offering data such as the amount of time spent active on specific games or websites, as well as keeping track of recent web searches.
Immediately foreseeable are the benefits to this kind of feature, especially for those with younger children. Obviously, learning that a young child has viewed inappropriate content isn’t as beneficial as preventing it in the first place, but at least this gives parents the option to explain what has been seen in a clear and concise manner.
Parents of adolescents could enjoy greater control over general internet usage, such as monitoring the kind of content that is viewed and regulating the amount of time spent gaming or on social media services.
It also eliminates that not-so-age-old question “who’s responsible for using up all of the data cap this month?” This can lead to considerable savings in terms of unnecessary upgrades of broadband plans and can help dodge overage fees and speed-capping.
Of course kids always have access to the internet via other mediums. Increasingly children are finding themselves with their own mobile phone plans complete with wireless broadband access and Wi-Fi compatibility. Limiting a child’s daily Facebook usage using a tool like Family Safety would only prevent access on a home PC and do nothing towards recording time logged on a handset. Similarly web-searches and website visits on a smartphone or tablet may not be tracked. Do we then require monitoring systems for all of these devices?
While this idea may sound great to many parents there are some potential consequences to this level of monitoring that should be discussed. While there are really very few imaginable drawbacks to using Family Safety with younger children, when is it time to switch off the safety net and let an adolescent develop their own personality free of the ever-watching eye of comprehensive parental monitoring?
A useful reference for discussion is the concept of social Panopticism, as outlined by Michel Foucault. The Panopticon is a form of prison that was first conceived of by social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the latter part of the 18th century. The general idea was that if an inmate was constantly monitored they would attempt to act in a social acceptable manner in the hopes of receiving preferential treatment. Through the repetition of acting in an acceptable manner said inmate would eventually begin to view this new kind of behaviour as normal. Over time, this would become so ingrained that the prisoner could foreseeably be released with minimal risk to the public.
Foucault took this concept and applied it to society as a whole. Every day we curb our desires and impulses in order to fit in. These adopted habits and social conventions then become so inbuilt that even when we are alone we rarely act outside them. For example, you may be more inclined to sing to yourself when at home alone than when you are outside. Knowing that you love singing to yourself, it’s still likely that you would look negatively upon someone who sings to themselves in public. Even though you have these exact same urges, your immediate response has been conditioned to recognise this person as undesirable. Alternately you may not even sing loudly to yourself when you are at home for fear of feeling silly, even though there is no one else around.
This is an example of Panopticism;
It is conceivable, then, that a teen would be more hesitant to use the internet to answer embarrassing questions or to view material of certain content lest it reflect poorly on them in the eyes of their parents. Such a child would end up presenting an intentionally edited version of themselves to their parents on a daily basis by altering and controlling their online actions.
Once an adolescent steps out of the house it still hasn’t ended. Smartphone-tracking software is commonly utilised by parents to record the movements of their children when they are out and about. Once again the benefits here are obvious, but it reflects back to the idea that the intentional manipulation of one’s actions under the gaze of a constant monitoring system could plausibly take part in the shaping of one’s psyche.
Of course I’m not saying that Windows 8 Family Safety is overtly dangerous or harmful, nor do I presume to pass judgment on parents who monitor the well-being and actions of their children. Monitoring a child’s actions to ensure well-being is both responsible and commendable, but we need to at least reflect on both the potential positives and negatives of it in order to come to an educated opinion.
So there you have it, parents. Now you can not only worry about what content your child can access online, but also about the safety systems designed to ensure that said content is as safe and harm-free as possible.
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