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Hidden effects of virtual monitoring

Remote video surveillance offers parents peace of mind, but it could unwittingly unleash a host of problems, says ZDNet Asia's Isabelle Chan.
Written by Isabelle Chan, Contributor

commentary A chain of child care centers in Singapore recently launched a virtual monitoring service which lets parents look in on their children from anywhere in the world.

The Web-based monitoring service is called the ToddlerEye. It uses the HomeCamera service developed by Singapore operator MobileOne's Wireless Intellect Labs, and D-Link's Internet camera which enables audio and video to be streamed remotely to a mobile phone or PDA (personal digital assistant).

Remote video surveillance is not new, but what caught my eye was a press statement by Sam Yap, group executive chairman of Cherie Hearts child care centers. He said: "The new ToddlerEye service fits perfectly with our continuous efforts to help parents bond with their children, even from a virtual distance."

Now, I can see why a child care center would want to offer such a service. Letting parents look in on their children is a perfectly valid reason, but to say that it can help parents bond with their children is stretching it a little. If parents wanted to bond with their children, they would be right there by their child's side, wouldn't they?

So let's just call a spade a spade. This is a surveillance service; it does not address the parent-child relationship.

The other question I have is whether such a service is even necessary in a child care center. But first, let me say that I am not totally against remote surveillance. For example, if I have children and have to leave them at home alone with a nanny whom I've just hired, I may consider installing a Web camera at home for peace of mind.

But at a child care center? Is remote surveillance a little excessive considering the child will be in a roomful of children and under qualified supervision? If a parent didn't have full confidence in the child care center, my guess is that the child wouldn't be enrolled there in the first place.

Every day, new ideas for how IT and the Internet can further improve our lives are borne, and that's a good thing. But even though technology affords us with new capabilities and possibilities, we should spend a little more time thinking about the problem the new technology application aims to solve. We should also think about the broader implications--in this case, how it might affect the care givers or teachers.

With a surveillance camera, child minders and care givers will be working under the constant scrutiny of parents. What will this do to the relationship between the parents and the care givers? Will this improve or undermine the level of trust between them?

A friend of mine also pointed out how remote surveillance may be too much of a good thing. Highlighting a potential downside, she said paranoia may set in. She may become paranoid about everything she sees on camera and become unduly worried if she sees her daughter sitting alone, even if it's for a couple of minutes, or if her daughter stands at the back of the room and not at the front.

Remote surveillance at child care centers or schools could open Pandora's box. While parents have every right to ensure the safety and the well being of their children, paranoid parents could put undue stress on care givers. What's there to stop parents from calling up the school every day with questions about the way their children are cared for?

There are other technologies besides Web cameras that let us monitor our loved ones. Parents can use their mobile phones to keep an eye on their children by monitoring who they can and cannot call, while RFID (radio frequency identification) tags have reportedly been used to ensure the safety of some schoolkids in Japan and Denmark.

While there is no denying the importance of protecting our children from harm, there is a limit to how we apply today's technologies. And do we need more technology in every corner of our lives? How many of today's technology solutions are looking for a problem to solve, and how many solve problems without creating new ones?

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