In the 21st century, parenthood and paranoia often walk hand in hand.
For some, the blessed event is followed by high-tech surveillance — a monitoring system tracks the baby’s breathing rhythms and relays infrared images from the nursery. Toddlers and grade schoolers can be equipped with GPS devices enabling a parent to know their location should something go awry.
To cope with the uncertainties of the teen years, some parents acquire spyware to monitor their children’s online and cellphone activity.
Added together, there’s a diverse, multibillion-dollar industry seeking to capitalize on parents’ worst fears about their children.
“There’s a new set of challenges for parents, and all sorts of new tools that can help them do their job,” said David Walsh, a child psychologist in Minneapolis. “On the other hand, we have very powerful industries that create these products and want to sell as many as possible, so they try to convince parents they need them.”
A look at some of the monitoring tactics and products available to parents:
These devices — some limited to audio monitoring, others also with video capability — have developed a reputation as a mixed blessing. They can provide parents with peace of mind, freeing them to be elsewhere in the house while the baby naps, but sometimes they accentuate anxiety.
“Some parents are reassured by hearing and seeing every whimper and movement. Others find such close surveillance to be nerve-wracking,” says Consumer Reports, which has tested many of the monitors.
The monitors operate within a selected radio frequency band to send sound from a baby’s room to a receiver in another room, a technology that can be vulnerable to interference from other electronic devices.
Prices of models tested by Consumer Reports ranged from $30 for audio monitors to more than $200 for some with video.
Models at the high end of the price scale include the Dropcam Echo audio-video system, for $279. Its manufacturer says the system automatically detects motion and sound, and sends alerts to a parent’s smartphone or iPad.
Parents are warned not to rely on monitors to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and they should be sure that the monitors’ electrical cords are kept away from cribs. Earlier this year, about 1.7 million Summer Infant video monitors were recalled after being linked to the strangulation deaths of two infants.
Of the roughly 800,000 children reported missing in the U.S. each year, the vast majority ran away or were abducted by a parent. But there are enough kidnappings by strangers to fuel a large, evolving market for products catering to apprehensive parents.
The devices range from clip-on alarms to GPS locators that can be put in a backpack or stuffed in a doll, but they have limited range and can raise safety concerns of their own.
Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, says the devices can be helpful in some circumstances but worries about overreliance on them.
Generally, the gadgets are in two parts — a main device carried by the parent and a small alarm attached to the child. If a child vanishes, the parent can activate the alarm.
Other gadgets use GPS technology, relying on satellite signals, that allows parents using a Web browser to track the location of an enabled device such as a cellphone.
One company, BrickHouse Security, offers a GPS child locator for $200 that functions as a digital watch and can be locked onto the child’s wrist. If forcibly removed, an alert is sent to the parent’s cellphone and e-mail.
For many parents, one of the toughest decisions is whether to spy on a child’s computer and cellphone activity. A recent Associated Press-MTV poll found that about one-quarter of teens had shared sexually explicit photos, videos or chat via cellphone or online.
One of the challenges for some parents is a technology gap — their children may have more savvy about cyberspace.
“Parents are trying to play catch-up — and it’s a highly fragmented, confusing sector,” said Keith Jarrett of the AmberWatch Foundation, a nonprofit based in Seal Beach, Calif.
AmberWatch promotes various safety devices and technologies, including SafeText — a system enabling parents, for $5 a month, to monitor their children’s text messaging. The system sends alerts when it detects potentially dangerous or inappropriate text messages, so the parents don’t have to review vast numbers of messages themselves.
Another enterprise, Software4Parents, reviews and sells a range of spyware products. Among the site’s featured products are Spector PRO and eBlaster, for sale at $99, and touted as a way to monitor online chats, instant messages and e-mails.
Several spyware brands, including Mobile Spy and MobiStealth, now offer systems that work with Android, Google’s operating system for mobile phones, ranging in price from $100 to $150 a year.
Dr. Henry Gault, who practices child and adolescent psychiatry in Deerfield, Ill., says parents who spy on their children “are walking down a slippery slope” and may end up causing worse problems than the ones that prompted the surveillance.
“That should be the course of last resort,” he said.
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