Are video monitors putting babies under surveillance?

I get a rather astonishing number of pitches from tech companies seeking visibility in the dad and parenting space online, and it’s very cool. Lots of interesting products and innovations. After all, us parents need all the help we can get, and if it’s in the shape of a gadget, well, we like our smartphones and Internet, right, so how can anything that taps into that zeitgeist not be good?

Live View Video Baby MonitorWhen Lorex Technology sent me their interactive Live View baby monitor I was interested in exploring its uses, even though I don’t have a baby any more, my youngest is 8. Eight? How did she get to be that old so fast? Ah, that’s a separate topic…

Anyway, when we had babies around the house, our strategy was either to have them with us, even if they were sleeping, or to use a cheapo baby monitor, a two part audio mic and speaker setup. You know what I’m talking about, it’s the downfall of many parents who sneak into the baby’s room for a quick tete-a-tete during parties, not realizing that the monitor’s still broadcasting. We actually used to be able to tune in to the neighbors baby monitor for a while, which was, um, interesting. But not so much about the baby itself…

Even at that level, though, there was a kind of creepy vibe about surveillance for just the reason I’m joking about in the previous paragraph: it’s useful to be able to go into a different room from the baby and darn useful for the baby to get used to at least occasionally waking up without a parent around (did I, a self-avowed “attachment parent”, just say that?) but is monitoring the right solution, versus just listening for their cry?

Baby monitors evolve and our second baby monitor had an LED indicator light so that you could then trust the device and simply keep an eye on the lights to see whether there was something going on in the remote spot. Useful if you don’t want the white noise of the device when, say, watching a movie. Or making out.

And so, it’s no surprise that the newest generation of devices are video monitors. After all, if you want to listen to your baby breathing even when you’re not in the room, surely you’d also adore being able to watch their little sleeping figure on a tiny screen whenever you want?

Actually, I’ll admit, there’s something sublime and heart-warming about watching a sleeping baby. And if they’re a fussy baby, I think that sublimeness is even greater. Finally, your tiny angel, peaceful and relaxed.

What makes the Live View monitor interesting, though, is that it’s a two-way audio system too. That means if you hear baby crying and see him/her wiggling around, you can murmur “it’s okay, honey” to the monitor device and your voice will come out of the speaker built into the camera end of the device. Kinda a little weird.

My general approach to testing things is to give them to my kids and see what they make of it, and it took about ten seconds for my son to cotton on to the idea of stealth surveillance and quietly go upstairs and set it in his big sister’s bedroom.

me: “Um, why would you want to see her sleeping?”

him: “No, we can hear what she talks about and you can check to see if she’s doing homework!”

me: “That’s creepy.”

I thought his idea was interesting in as much as we adults are continually decrying the loss of privacy in our increasingly public and surveilled world, and here’s my son immediately recognizing the benefit of having a spycam in someone’s personal space. Youth, of course, are way less conscious of privacy than us parents, as is immediately obvious when you see what they’re willing to post and talk about on The Facebooks compared to those of us that have, um, been around for a while.

But he did accomplish one thing: he made me think about whether I would actually use a live video monitor with two way audio — or an inevitable upgrade to two-way video too — as a way to keep tabs on my baby. I think I would, but I’d be a bit leery about it and want one with an encrypted communications channel. It’s one thing to realize the neighbors can listen to your baby crying on the radio and another entirely to think that they could be watching whatever the camera sees, and sharing that on YouTube, Facebook, whatever.

Oh, and we did get to enjoy A- looking at the camera contraption, then getting really big in the camera while saying “really?” and unplugging it. Somewhat amusing!

The second part of the question is then when do you stop using a monitoring device? When they can walk? Talk? Figure out how to hack it so you see reruns of I Love Lucy? My sense is that for me it’d be really young. When they’re “helpless” it’s useful to keep tabs on your baby while having the freedom to move around your house and yard, but when they can hop out of bed and come find you? I imagine you’re probably ready to disable the device.

So what do you think? Would you — or do you — use a video baby monitor like the Live View (which is a pretty darn nice device, btw) or do you want just audio, or are you an old-school type who thinks you should just keep an ear open for their cries or has them within arm’s reach at all times?

3 comments on “Are video monitors putting babies under surveillance?

  1. Everything has a “depends” attached to it. If I owned a large house and the laundry room was out of earshot of where the little one was sleeping, possibly. If I had a younger toddler who needed me to play with them outside during the baby’s naptime, nice to have a way to hear any cries while outside. Am I on a conference call with a headset while he’s sleeping? Having a monitor (especially with lights) can alert me when I might not be able to hear. Do I finally get 5 minutes for a shower? Would be nice to know if I could have stayed in there for *10* minutes, instead of panicking thinking I needed to get out of there ASAP in case the baby wakes up. Notice these are all audio. Personally, I would have no use for the video as if the baby’s crying, I’d go. If I’m going to sit there and watch my baby sleeping, I’m probably going to go into the room and do it so I can stroke his little head.

    I’m also with you – pretty much after they are able to come to you, there isn’t much point. Well, using it as an “early warning system” is good, too… because if you’re , um, “making out” on the couch, it’d be nice to know/hear a little one getting up out of bed to find you.

    As for “getting them used to being watched”… not sure about that one. Are we “getting them used to” never using a toilet by using diapers? Are we “getting them used to” being a spoiled King Of The Land That It Always Hand Fed by playing Choo Choo Train with pureed carrots? We are “always” taking pictures and video taping them anyway… I don’t think a video baby monitor is going to be the tipping point – if people really want to spend the money. Babies are great marketing tools – it doesn’t take much to make parents scared of *anything* and willing to spend money to “keep their child safe.”

  2. Coming from the Mom who thinks allowing your 6 month old to play with an empty medicine bottle in the bath tub is sending the wrong message to the baby, I love this question. I can see both sides. As a parent, it is our job to protect our children, but where is the line?

    Doors were made for a reason. Mostly to protect parents privacy, but it works both ways. We need to teach our children to value other people’s privacy as well as their own. How can we do that when we are putting cameras and monitors in their room?

    There were 5 children growing up in our house. I don’t remember ever having a problem hearing them cry. It was a small house, but even with the doors closed I could hear them calling out or crying.

    Well Dave, I guess you have forced me to admit that I am from the old school. Two of my babies come home from the hospital (at the same time) with heart monitors. Trust me, even from the deepest sleep, you can hear those go off from anywhere in the house and half way down the street. So I understand the desire to be able to see and hear everything that is going on in the baby’s room, but at what cost?

  3. Great topic. My opinions are all over the map.

    First: It’s one of those slippery-slope issues (where to draw the line at “sufficiently safe”?) that can cause a gradual shift in basic terms of identity and relationship. I think most people who set up baby monitors don’t start out as “the type of people who would surveil their kids” and end up indeed being such people. Every leash has two ends.

    Secondly: When a disability is involved, such as a hard-of-hearing parent, or a child with asthma, some sort of assistive device seems like a good idea. But a downside of all assistive devices — even eyeglasses or wheelchairs — is that they reduces the motivation to improve faculties that might otherwise have been strengthened naturally and ingenious solutions that might otherwise have been devised.

    Thirdly: In the absence of disability, monitoring may _cause_ one: Most parents develop a hard-to-characterize sixth sense that informs them, with varying degrees of accuracy, what their kids are doing at all times. I think this sense is a combination of normal mammalian instincts with our species’ superb pattern recognition. Having access to one very information-rich channel dulls the senses to all the other input that we process unconsciously: body heat distribution, skin resiliency, tiny twitches, blink rate, and a thousand others.

    Fourthly: As you note, the times are a-changing. A decade from now, it might be commonplace for even the most mundane events to be captured on a loop like those now caught on videocams in banks and convenience stores. Not long after that, the “loop” becomes saved data. For some?many individuals, it will be broadcast. How long and why do parents protect their children from such social trends, and what becomes of families who opt out, as some families have tried to opt out of internet, or TV, or public schooling, or medical birthing, or Social Security numbering? In 2030, a child without a vital-signs monitor might be subject a parent to a child-endangerment investigation (as is true for some kids today whose clothing or grooming is nonmainstream), or might render the child ineligible for some public services (as is true for unvaccinatees today). In 2050, a person with gaps in their Witness Vlog might be an automatic criminal suspect (as is true today for people without the right documentation).

    Until those days arrive, my rule of thumb is low-tech: Except in cases of disability, [nonhuman] monitoring should be packed away before a child becomes aware of its existence.

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