Black Mirror Arkangel: Are we already living in a dystopia of parental surveillance?

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Black Mirror Season 4 Episode 2: Arkangel

Back when I was in university, a friend of mine called his parents every single night. That’s sweet, you might think. But no, it was a ritualistic, mandatory process that he was required to complete. Before the dawn of the mobile phone, the university send-off would be the start of some semblance of independence for parents’ children. That’s not so true any more, with our technologically connected world.

Arkangel is a Black Mirror episode that conveys the cold, hard reality of helicopter parenting: a term describing over-involved parents that make decisions for their children, solving their problems and shielding them from making mistakes.

The second episode of the new season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is a horrifying reflection of this trend pushed to its extreme. Beginning with every parent’s fear, Arkangel starts with Marie’s (Rosemary DeWitt) three-year-old daughter Sara disappearing for the briefest of minutes. Vowing never to experience the utter fear she felt then, Marie decides to have Sara implanted with Arkangel, a monitoring and surveillance device that allows Marie to track Sara’s whereabouts and see and control everything she sees.

Most shockingly is that, with Arkangel, Marie can filter out anything that will cause Sara pain, whether that’s the sight of a vicious dog, blood, violent behaviour, language, or even illness and death. You can physically see the anxiety manifesting on Sara’s face as Marie’s content filters come into effect. When a teenage Sara goes off to party with her friends and fails to come home in the morning, Marie decides to turn to Arkangel with fears Sara might be in danger. The shocking ending will have all parents reconsidering their surveilling actions.


(Above: Black Mirror, Arkangel)

Remove the Arkangel implant and replace it with one of the abundant GPS trackers out there and I’m sure much the same story would pan out, with similarly dire consequences. It’s now so easy for parents to track their child’s every move that the urge to do so is understandably irresistible. Having wearables like the Weenect – a smartwatch that gives precise location information on your child’s whereabouts – so readily available, why wouldn’t you purchase a tracking device?

“There are monitoring apps which monitor where children go online and their internet browsing history,” says Dr Alicia Blum-Ross, research officer and co-author of the Parenting for a Digital Future project at LSE. “Some of them will physically monitor children through geocaching, and most of them are already built into smartphones and wearables.

“Some can go further and do context searches and are able to do more granular monitoring, with some of the apps in the market attempting to pull out algorithmically if children or young people are saying things that parents find worrisome, or if they’re talking about issues that parents might be alarmed about.”

In a 2015 study on helicopter parenting, researchers from Brigham Young University found that, overall, parents who did what a child should be developmentally doing for themselves consequently produced effects of anxiety, regardless of the form of control. Another study from researchers at the National University of Singapore found that intrusive parents were making kids self-critical, afraid of making mistakes, anxious and depressed. With so many parents now controlling everything that kids do and see online, as well as keeping tabs on their whereabouts, children aren’t being allowed to make mistakes and thus learn from them.

“It creates a scenario in which children are so accustomed to the idea that they’re being spied upon that they don’t necessarily take responsibility for their own safety”

“My concern with monitoring apps is that they can create a carrot-and-stick scenario,” Blum-Ross tells me. “Parents are watching children and a) it doesn’t teach them how to regulate their own internet use, and b) it creates a scenario in which children are so accustomed to the idea that they’re being spied upon that they don’t necessarily take responsibility for their own safety. Third, it can undermine parents’ conversations about what is appropriate behaviour, where to go and also when children can have more autonomy and privacy from their parents.”

Is it ethical in a broader sense to use surveillance apps, software and wearables to monitor children and young people? As with Marie in Arkangel, some businesses are indeed specifically preying on the fears of parents to sell GPS tracking devices. Peruse a range of GPS monitors online and you’ll see items that range from the excessive to the downright creepy. There are trackers such as the AmbyGear, a tracker disguised as a fun smartwatch, and AngelSense – marketed at kids with disabilities, this device lets parents listen on to their child’s conversations and get 30-second updates. Then there’s the Amber Alert GPS Locator, a device that alerts you if your child is within 500 metres of a registered sex offender.

“By setting up a technological solution, it undermines a lot of emotional development that needs to happen,” Blum-Ross says. “From a research perspective, there’s very little evidence to suggest that technological solutions alone keep children safe. The worry is that if parents are offered ever-greater tech solutions, they may absolve themselves of doing other really essential parenting duties.”

This sentiment is echoed by the children’s charity, the NSPCC. “Using technology to monitor children may offer peace of mind to parents but they shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to having regular and open conversations with your child about how to keep them safe,” a spokesperson from the organisation told me.

“Using technology to monitor children could lull some parents into a false sense of security”

“There’s a danger that using technology to monitor or track children could lull some parents into a false sense of security. If children feel that parents are being overly intrusive about what they are up to online, it can make them more secretive and not feel able to talk to their parents if something upsetting or worrying happens to them.”

Not all signs point to helicopter parenting being such a bad thing. Dr Holly Schiffrin, who co-conducted a study into hovering helicopter parents and college-age students, tells me there is “a whole body of research that says parental involvement in general is beneficial for children”, both in terms of academic education and social interaction. She does, however, note that helicopter parenting has been linked to “young adults reporting more medication for anxiety and depression; more depressive symptoms; and dissatisfaction with life”.black_mirror_3

(Above: Black Mirror, Arkangel)

Perhaps the most important thing is for parents to have an open and frank discussion with their kids about how they’ll be monitoring their behaviour using technology. Blum-Ross tells me that technology can supplement good parenting, but it can’t be done covertly as it is in Arkangel.

“If parents create rules around digital technology that they don’t consult their children about or take into account their children’s desires, that can be very isolating for children to feel like they’re not being heard in family conversations. There’s a way of incorporating tech solutions into family life that’s transparent, but there’s a danger that parents won’t do that,” Blum-Ross says. “If parents are monitoring surreptitiously, that’s not doing anyone any favours in relationships with parents and their children.”

“Our advice is that parents talk to their children rather than monitor them”

The NSPCC feels similarly: “Our advice is that parents talk to their children rather than monitor them, and consider the impact that using monitoring devices could have on their privacy, particularly as they get older. Parents can also go to NetAware, run by the NSPCC and O2 for the very latest information on the games, apps, websites and social networks that are being used by young people.”

If you’re to take anything away from Arkangel, it’s not that helicopter parenting is bad; it’s that your children have the right to know what and how you’re tracking them, especially as they get older. The consequences could be highly damaging, not just for your child’s mental health, but also for your relationship with your children.

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