These parents use baby monitors to track older children – even teenagers

These parents use baby monitors to track older children – even teenagers

While many parents say it’s a violation of their child’s privacy, there is another camp of those who admit to still monitoring their children’s bedrooms well beyond infancy and toddlerhood.

For some families, a medical or mental health issue requires keeping an ear out for an older child at night. But many other parents say they have no reason to check on their children other than to ease their own – or their child’s – anxiety. Several parents, including one who admitted to watching too many true crime shows, told me they worry about their children being abducted at night. Such fears are generally unfounded, according to crime statistics.

Growing up in a digital age means that parents now have electronic supervision of their children from birth to college. Smart watches and mobile apps allow parents to track where their children are playing and even how fast they are driving.

But even for a GPS-obsessed culture, listening in on conversations remotely or watching kids play through cameras can seem extreme. Such a practice probably builds anxiety for parents instead of alleviating it, say pediatricians and psychologists. And it can inhibit children’s ability to develop their own autonomy and judgement.

“You can spy on me whenever you want?”

Kathryn Smith is the mother of a trio of girls – 5-year-old twins and an 8-year-old. She oversees their bedrooms and a playroom in the basement. She says she wants to make sure the twins don’t get hurt at the jungle gym, or mess around when they’re supposed to be sleeping. She says her older daughter feels better when she knows she can call her parents if she feels sick or has a bad dream.

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Smith had Nest cameras aimed at her children’s cribs and beds when the girls were younger, but recently switched. She opted for old-fashioned video baby monitors that aren’t connected to Wi-Fi, due to concerns about cameras being hacked. (That’s a legitimate concern.)

The Holladay, Utah, mother says she checks the monitors when she’s out in the family’s new hot tub or watching TV. Her husband never uses the screen. One night recently when Mrs. Smith was out, he was in the hot tub. Because the baby monitor was inside, he didn’t initially hear the 8-year-old yelling at him.

Smith says her older daughter recently expressed concern about the camera. “She said, ‘So you can spy on me whenever you want?'” She told her daughter she can turn the camera to a wall if she wants, but the girl hasn’t done that yet.

The twins, she says, need to prove they are more responsible before she lets them have a say in the surveillance. One night, she says, the two were rough, and one ended up with a cut on the forehead that required a trip to the hospital.

“Paranoid Pam”

Pamela Lewis used the baby monitor longer than anyone I interviewed. It stayed in my son’s bedroom until he was 14 and the room got a makeover. Although she didn’t listen to him regularly as he got older, she says it helped resolve some childhood disputes he had with friends by letting her hear what was really going on.

“I was the mother who cut her child’s food until he was far too old because I was afraid he would choke. I used a booster seat until he was 7 or 8,” she says. “My friends called me Paranoid Pam.”

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Her friends teased her about the baby monitor and so did her husband. “He sometimes thought I was a bit tough,” she says. Still, she says she always told her son when she planned to turn on the monitor, which was often just to see if he was okay when he was sick. “I never wanted him to think I was spying on him, and I never felt like I needed to spy on him,” says Lewis, of Loveland, Colo.

Her son, now 19, said it didn’t bother him and he often forgot about it. However, he is glad it disappeared when it did.

Kiana Muhly, a Philadelphia business owner, kept a Nest Cam in her 6-year-old daughter’s bedroom. She checked it often at night, especially if she was out and a babysitter was putting her daughter to bed.

The family recently moved into a new home, and Ms. Muhly debates whether to put the camera back in the girls’ room. If she does, says Ms. Muhly, “can her daughter give me the side eye.”

And she recognizes that it is no longer a necessity. “I think it definitely speaks to the anxiety technology can create,” says Ms. Muhly. “I check something incessantly because I can – not because I need to.”

When to pull out the plug

Some baby monitor manufacturers suggest that parents stop using one when the baby turns 1, or at least sleeps through the night. The Babysense website says evidence shows that turning off the monitor as early as safety allows helps both parents and babies sleep better. Children can better learn to self-soothe when their parents aren’t looking and parents aren’t being woken up by every little sound that comes through the screen.

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Hina Talib, a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist at the Atria Institute, a primary and preventive care practice in New York City, says that privacy is an important developmental milestone and that children as young as 3 express a desire to be alone in the bathroom or at clothing. “Kids shouldn’t think it’s normal to have a camera pointed at them in their bedroom,” she says.

Still, Dr. Talib understands the urge to monitor. She herself used a baby monitor until her two children were 3 and 4 years old. It was her husband who persuaded her to quit. She says that when she did, she felt liberated and slept better.

It is OK to use a baby monitor with older children when you have sleepwalking, night terrors, illness or other problems, she says. But parents need to have a plan to remove it when things settle down.

If older children want a screen because they are afraid of the dark and want to be able to yell at their parents, the device may only feed their anxiety, says Dr. Talib.

“You need your kids to feel safe without having an intercom,” she adds. “You can tell your kids that you’re going to unplug the screen — but that they can always come to you if they need you.”

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(Email Julie Jargon at [email protected])

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