In the most recent episode of Modern Family, the hapless Phil and Claire Dunphy snoop on their children with a camera-equipped toy chopper. The literal send-up of "helicopter parenting" is played for laughs – after all, the parent-child struggle over privacy is as timeless as "Keep out!" signs on bedroom doors.
But there's a darker subtext to the show. At a time when there is outrage over government and corporate monitoring of our phone and Internet activities, as well as concerns about the omnipresence of security cameras recording our every move, there's also a growing market for technology that helps parents monitor their kids.
Rogers, for example, has been pushing its home-monitoring video capabilities in a TV commercial that features a real Canadian mom. In the ad, Kelly Williamson is on vacation in Aruba when an alert on her smartphone tells her smoke has been detected back at her home in Newmarket, Ont. A quick check of her monitoring system's live camera feed reveals not a kitchen in flames, but a pair of home-alone teenagers who have forgotten to flip their flapjacks.
"I know from the camera who it was," Ms. Williamson says in the ad while her guilty 17-year-old son Ryan smiles sheepishly.
The price of that knowledge, though, is youth privacy. Surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden said in a message delivered on Christmas Eve from Russia that "a child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They'll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought."
This pervasive surveillance of children also worries child psychologists, media experts and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. They say a lack of privacy in children' s lives can undermine trust, promote secrecy and hinder their ability to assess risk and develop independence. As well, young people who grow up in an environment where their privacy isn't respected may not learn to understand or value it.
"Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be," Mr. Snowdon says. And these days kids can't even get it in their own homes.
Technological advancements over the last decade have provided parents with tools that were formerly available only to law enforcement and government: software that monitors online and mobile communication; GPS tracking devices that can be strapped to backpacks and wrists; even palm scanners in cafeterias to monitor caloric intake. Security cameras have been commonplace in schools, malls and other public places for decades, leaving the family home as the last bastion of youth privacy.
But for how much longer? The use of in-home cameras is widespread and growing. Ian Pattinson, vice-president of Rogers Smart Home Monitoring, wouldn't disclose how many homes have installed the service since it launched in 2011, or how many of those include cameras. But he says that Rogers and its U.S. home-security partners, which include cable giants Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Inc., aim to install their products in 40 per cent of North American households, and that cameras are a "very, very popular feature."
Sitting in his Newmarket home, Ryan Williamson laughs when recalling how friends kept asking, "Been making pancakes lately?" and "Do you have trust issues with your mom?" when he first appeared alongside his mother in that television ad for Rogers' home-monitoring service.
His mother, though, takes it more seriously. Ms. Williamson, 46, gestures toward the sardine-can-sized camera sitting unobtrusively atop a bank of kitchen cabinets. "I don't think cameras are a great parenting tool, but if it allows you to trust them and feel a little more comfortable, then sure. I think initially they thought it was a little bit creepy, but the reality is I don't think it has changed their behaviour.
"Nobody likes their privacy invaded, but everyone likes to be protected."
The ironies of this outlook aren't lost on Danah Boyd. The professor in media, culture and communication at New York University spent seven years talking with teenagers across the United States while working on her forthcoming book, It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, and was repeatedly told that the home is no longer a private place for young people.
"Many of today's teenagers can't go anywhere without being monitored by adults," she says, adding that incessant surveillance has become "the new norm" for young people in Western society.
They are being watched "because the parenting narrative demands surveillance," Ms. Boyd says. "It's become a crutch for feeling that we're doing the right thing, a crutch for feeling that we've done everything we can possibly do to make sure our child is safe."
But this crutch is harming the very relationships parents are trying to protect. When parents install cameras, "it controls kids through a fear of stepping out of bounds, and it creates the environment where it's impossible to have meaningful lines of communication," Ms. Boyd says.
Parents who over-monitor their children are also sending them a mixed message about one of society's highest values. "We hold up freedom as this extraordinary value, yet are unwilling to allow young people to explore it."
Jason Nolan, an associate professor in early childhood studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, acknowledges that in-home monitoring and other surveillance tools can ensure the safety of people who are unable to take care of themselves, such as people with special needs, the elderly and infants.
But Prof. Nolan says research has shown that children as young as 18 months are aware they are being watched and require privacy and autonomy. This surprisingly early age reveals privacy's primal roots. According to the Eight Stages of Development explored by psychiatrist Erik Erikson in 1956, a sense of autonomy enters the human socialization process very early on, accompanied by an awareness of being watched by others. These two pillars of human psychological growth are inextricably linked.
That is why an invasion of privacy always comes at a cost, Prof. Nolan says. "Children require appropriate amounts of privacy and autonomy to develop into mature, independently minded members of society."
The latest child surveillance technologies haven't been around long enough to yield much in the way of tangible research data about their unintended consequences, but the over-sharing of personal information online and the mimicking of dangerous activities posted on the Internet have been widely documented.
Prof. Nolan says these phenomena can be interpreted as a result of growing up without privacy. And he foresees dire consequences if the erosion of child privacy continues. "We are faced with a generation who will be less independent in their thinking, relying on the external authority of governments and corporations, and more easily manipulated by public opinion."
On a national-security level, many adults are already heading down this road, Ms. Boyd points out. "Americans have been willing to give up civil liberties, as well as large amounts of the national budget, to protect them from isolated incidents of terrorism. But at what cost to us as a society?"
The disparity between real and perceived risk lies at the heart of the issue, Prof. Nolan says. "The threat of 'stranger danger' is a big deal in advertising and the media. However, research suggests that children are safer now than a decade ago. At issue are media reports about children at risk rather than actual risk increases."
This may explain why home-monitoring vendors rely on the amorphous concept of peace of mind when marketing their cameras. Alarm systems and smoke detectors that transmit alerts to smartphones undoubtedly reduce the risk of burglary and fire damage, as evidenced by the discounted home-insurance rates available to users. But how does a camera in the house reduce these risks? It can't stop an intruder or douse a fire.
As well, the ability to monitor children remotely on smartphones adds another layer of stress and distraction to parents' hectic lives. What we don't know can't hurt us, as the saying goes.
The rise in youth surveillance, and the academic outcry surrounding its effects, hasn't been lost on the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. It was a central theme in its 2011 annual report, which examined a privacy complaint involving a webcam in a daycare and made passing reference to in-home cameras. The latter was explored more extensively a year later in a research paper titled "Surveillance Technologies and Children."
But conducting research and raising parental awareness is all the office can do, Interim Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier says. "We cannot take a stance on how people raise their children," she says, adding that, "as has been the case through the ages, children need to exercise their right to privacy from their parents as a matter of development."
In other words, invasive home monitoring can only be kept in check by parental awareness – and, perhaps inevitably, by kids themselves.
Take Sheldon Fraser, a 17-year-old high-school student in Ajax, Ont. Fraser says he isn't bothered by the new monitoring system in his home. The camera only covers the front door and is mainly intended to record the comings and goings of his 13-year-old sister.
But Mr. Fraser expects cameras to turn up inside some of his friends' homes sooner or later. "A lot of parents constantly check in, and having cameras would make their lives easier. I think it would bother their kids, though."
In these cases, Mr. Fraser would assert his freedom by staying away from those homes. "Why would I want to be somewhere where it feels like there is someone constantly 'on' me, like someone is watching, watching, all the time?"
Mr. Fraser's reaction reveals the most telling irony of all, Ms. Boyd says. "What I see from youth in these surveillance situations is that they don't go home, or that they don't bring friends back to their own homes. As parents, is that really what you want?"