(Another of these, this time from this tweet. I’ve tried to write something about this several times, and I want to go a lot deeper than I can in a quick one-off post. So think of this as an intro to something I’ll return to later.)
One of the most disturbing aspects of contemporary society, at least in the US, is our total disregard for children’s agency. Adults feel entitled to make decisions for them without even asking their opinion, adults see no need to apologize for treating them poorly, and adults ignore or invalidate their feelings all the time. Their lack of agency is especially obvious when it comes to privacy.
Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says,
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
But children’s right to it isn’t protected at all. Parents invade children’s privacy constantly, demanding access to their texts or social media (small wonder teenagers lean so heavily on snapchat), and actively surveilling them with tools like Life360. School authorities often behave similarly, including forcing kids to unlock phones or using badge-controlled access to track their comings and goings from school facilities.
As public spaces have shrunk, the third places kids can go to when they want to get out from under parents’ gaze are increasingly subject to surveillance as well, and often privately owned and hostile. A report from the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria extensively documented how kids experience this. They’re often actively aware of the attempts at unfriendly social control represented by ubiquitous surveillance, and that they are the intended objects of it. Some try to ignore it, some try to resist and disrupt it, and some try to escape it, but they generally feel its influence on them.
Parental controls often render the pretense that surveillance of kids is “for their own good.” They’re often used (even by publicly funded schools) to cut off kids’ access to essential resources, particularly queer kids. The goal isn’t to benefit them, it’s to control them. They’re used in abuse households to cut kids off from external support networks, and to subordinate them to their abusive and controlling parents.
Michele Foucault wrote extensively, particularly in Discipline and Punish, about how surveillance is used to render people into self-policing “docile bodies.” The increasingly-total surveillance of children’s lives brings this to its logical conclusion. Surveillance begins at birth and continues on with overwhelming force for people’s most formative years, habituating them to it and rendering it “normal.” When they reach adulthood, while they may resent it, it often won’t occur to them that the surveillance employers inflict on them is contingent and could be eliminated. This isn’t intentional, exactly, but the two reproduce each other: adults are surveilled and infantilized, so they in turn inflict surveillance on children and inhibit their agency, so they then themselves grow up to be largely-unresisting objects of surveillance and control.
Allowing children privacy and respecting their agency is necessary if we expect them to exert agency and resist unjust systems meant to repress them as adults. The lesson many kids receive today is that they should always fear and submit to power, because beyond small symbolic acts they can’t hope to resist it. It’s a moral and practical imperative that instead we as a society start teaching them to have the courage to fight unjust power and to assert their own agency over their lives.