What It Means to Grow Up Under Constant Surveillance

Students at 11 Chinese schools (so far) are required to wear “smart” uniforms that track their every move.

Thanks to chips sewn into the uniforms’ shoulders, the school can record the exact time a child enters and leaves the school.

If the kid skips a class, his parents and teachers are notified. If he leaves the class without permission, ditto. And if he happens to doze off, they’re notified of that, too — even as some sort of alarm goes off to stun the kid back to consciousness.

“Child Safety” is always the excuse for restricting freedom

The company making these brave new uniforms, Guanyun Technology, says that it is only trying to keep kids safe. Of course! Safety is always the reason given for restricting freedom and increasing surveillance.

Lin Zongwu, the principal at one of the schools using the sensor-enabled uniforms, said that attendance went up once his students knew they couldn’t get away with anything.

That’s hardly surprising. Attendance is pretty robust at prison roll call, too.

No Child Left Untracked

But Guanyun is also responding to a call from the Chinese government to develop “smart campuses.” Think of it as no child left untracked. In fact, think of it as a gateway to the kind of total surveillance the country is aiming for with its “social credit” scheme.

At some time in the near future, the government hopes to keep track of almost everything a person does, reads, watches, buys, visits or writes. Smoke on a train and your credit score goes down. Same with if you get a traffic ticket or buy too many videogames. Fraternize with lower-score friends and your score goes down, too, making it hard to get a good job, or a passport, or spouse. (Your score goes on your social media profile.) Exercising freedom of thought, deed or speech can derail your life.

That’s totalitarianism for you.

It’s not quite “Black Mirror” … yet

But in the U.S. we are not immune to the surveillance/compliance impulse when it comes to our kids. Already some U.S. schools have implemented systems that record when a child gets on and off a school bus. Schools lend their students computers or tablets programmed to scan every word a kid writes. Cameras in the schools record kids’ behavior, even as parents are provided with daily updates on every vocabulary quiz.

During Covid, schools have been using services that tell teachers what other tabs are open on students’ screens as they do their remote learning. Micromanagement is becoming the norm.

Beyond school, parents have ever more ways to track their kids, from cute looking GPS devices you can tie to their shoes, to non-removable electronic bracelets you can (legally!) clamp on their ankles — the kind worn by work-release felons.

All these tools, just like the Chinese uniforms, are marketed as if our kids are in danger from everything, everywhere: bad guys, bad grades, bad decisions.

Children need some autonomy

Of course, there is a big difference between a parent tracking a kid and the government tracking a kid. And yet, a kid growing up under constant surveillance is a kid growing up under constant surveillance.

America has succeeded as perhaps the world’s most inventive, creative, entrepreneurial country thanks, in part, to kids growing up with scads of free time to play, explore, goof up, climb trees, tinker in the basement. Sometimes they play hooky. Sometimes they get on a raft and go down the Mississippi. Sometimes they pretend to be reading about plant life but are really reading Captain Underpants.

If and when we treat our kids like the kids in China who are tracked and mistrusted at all times, we will have a nation of kids growing up robbed of childhood’s rocket fuel: independence. But they will be well-behaved, I guess.

Just like model prisoners.

Photo by Parker Coffman on Unsplash