Surveillance is deeply embedded in our everyday life experiences. ‘Thanks’ to the democratization of surveillance, a plethora of tracking devices are cheaply and readily available to consumers; from phones, smart watches and home surveillance cameras to video baby and pet monitors.
Many of these surveillance devices are directed specifically at or for children. Caregivers, often concerned by the variety of threats which have seemingly increased over the past 50 years or so, are enticed by the various monitoring devices available on the market today (Oostveen et al, 2014). However, adults are not the only ones who are seduced by the rhetoric of surveillance.
Increasingly, children are encouraged to learn how to monitor and control themselves. Like the (in)famous Christmas ‘toy’ – Elf on the shelf – which playfully and relentlessly looks over children’s good and bad deeds faithfully reporting them to Santa (Pinto & Nemorin, 2015), some of the patents I have been reviewing in the POP dataset barely disguise discourses and practices of surveillance, by clothing it in ideas of ‘entrainment’ and ‘fun’. Children are taught via ‘games’ and clothing how to behave and how not to get into trouble.
Credit: Jay Stooksberry (2016) Elf on a Shelf and Prepping My Kid for the Surveillance State
As I have previously discussed, there are arguments to suggest that children should have more freedom to make their own mistakes, break rules, get into trouble, and explore public spaces. With this I am not suggesting that children should be left to roam free without any sort of guidance, but rather than we should be critical of what we understand as safety, protection and education, avoiding in turn to justify our acts of surveillance as care.
What happens when ideas of ‘fun’ get entangled with surveillance practices?
Especially over the past three decades, young people have started to be clothed with ‘smart(er)’ garments able to track their vital data, movements, position, etc. These surveillance garments, aiming at ensuring a child’s ‘safety’ and ‘protection’, are themselves cloaked as playful and entertaining kids’ attire.
In exploring these particular clothing inventions, I ask: what happens when ideas of ‘fun’ get entangled with surveillance practices? How far can and should control extend? And how are children’s bodies shaped via these patented clothing inventions which seek to monitor wearers with promises of fun and/or safety?
Children are taught via ‘games’ and clothing how to behave and how not to get into trouble
Some of the garments I have been reviewing, rendering a piece of clothing more ‘entertaining’ and ‘fun’ was the only reason provided by inventors to justify the addition of tracking devices.
This Chinese ‘Child Coat’ for example aims to ‘provide a convenient and practical children’s clothing with increased fun’ where the fun is achieved by giving the child to ability to monitor their ‘heart rate’ via a special insert in the shirt.
This US ‘Glow in the dark glove apparatus’ (Pat. 5,580,154) claims to provide a feeling of ‘security and comfort for youth’ at home, or as the illustration shows, when the child is out in the street. The invention combines control, security, physical power, and enjoyment by encouraging the child to play at impersonating a ‘powerful fictional cartoon character’ of choice.
The child is no longer merely amused by the garment they are wearing, they can turn surveillance into an enjoyable game by impersonating their beloved super-heroes.
These kinds of inventions raise questions: In what way are inventors equipping children to learn how to be in the outside world? Is this way of controlling one’s body at home and outside grounded in some way on violence? Is an invention such as this implying that to be ‘safe’ requires some sort of physical potency?
This Chinese invention (Pat. 205016025) gives children the possibility of becoming more advanced humans (or superheroes). The child is clothed with ‘monitoring clothing’ which ‘includes a cut-proof layer, a waterproof layer, and a breathable layer’ and that ‘is not easy to be attacked criminals’.
Additionally, a ‘camera is provided on the left shoulder’ together with a ‘temperature sensor and decibel detector on the chest’ and a ‘GPS locator’ which is in connected both ‘to the route memory’ and a ‘wireless transmission module’.
Many of these kinds of inventions assume the threat is outside the home. Often afraid of a perilous ‘others’ loitering in the streets ready to harm us or our loved ones, it is easy to forget that in the majority of cases violence and abuses are reported within the domestic environment.
‘Despite its rarity, this type of kidnapping [‘stranger’ kidnapping] is often widely reported in the media, fuelling parental concerns over the safety of children’ (Oostveen et al, 2014: 581).
Invention like these, and many others, suggest that some children are being raised to be more suspicious, less trusting (being the ones whose honesty is usually questioned), afraid of strangers, new spaces and situations. What are the possible consequences of clothing children with these protecting surveillance devices that are questionably meant to keep them safe while also teaching them to enjoy their newly acquired ‘superpowers’?
Who (if anyone) is really ‘protected’ here?
This is only the beginning of this area of research and it raises lots of questions.
Who (if anyone) is really ‘protected’ here? Is it the child – who, in the name of ‘safety’ has to see their trust, privacy and independence compromised? Or is it the caregivers – who in turn are becoming more anxious, depressed, agitated and made culpable of anything bad which may happen to their child? Are we really talking about ‘safety’ here? And if so, does this excuse the amount of monitoring children are subjected to? Could there not be other ways to teach children how to be safe?
This is a very complex matter, where easy and quick answers cannot and should not be provided. These clothing inventions are useful starting points from which to open up a dialogue that aims to include children as well as adults; a dialogue which aspires to question the very nature of concepts such as children’s safety, privacy, protection and surveillance.
Oostveen, Anne-Marie., Vasalou, Asimina., van der Besselaar, Peter. And Brown, Ian. “Child Location Tracking in the US and the UK: Same Technology, Different Social Implications.” Surveillance & Society, 12 no. 4 (2014): 581-593.
Pinto, Laura Elisabeth. and Nemorin, Selena. “Normalizing Panoptic Surveillance Among Children: ‘The Elf on the Shelf’.” Our schools/Our selves, 24 (2015): 54-62.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights – https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
Pat. 5,580,154. James D. Coulter and Jovee Coulter, State of Illinois, USA, “Glow in the dark glove apparatus”, 3 December 1996. Accessed at the EPO Espacenet www.epo.org
Pat. 201414429. Yaqin Xie, China “Child Coat”, 3 March 2010. Accessed at the EPO Espacenet www.epo.org
Pat. 205016025. Xiangjuan Song, China, “Children guard clothes”, 2 March 2016. Accessed at the EPO Espacenet www.epo.org