(GUEST) Baby Tech Is Teaching Children To Mistake Surveillance For Love

Children today are faced with something more sinister than eyes in the back of their parents’ heads. 

As a young girl, I could make no movement without my mother knowing. Once, she clocked when I snuck out of the house for five minutes to see a friend, even though I left from the basement door which was two floors below her own room. Growing up, my mother often said she had “eyes in the back of her head”, and living under them was my first introduction to the hyper-visibility I navigate as a Black Muslim woman. I fantasized about subverting my mother’s gaze and the omnipresence she seemed to possess. For years, her remark cemented itself into my mind, making my mothers voice a second conscience. It impacted my psyche so much that I am still trying to differentiate the voices in my mind. But in my search for my own authentic voice as a new mother, I realized that children today are faced with something more sinister than eyes in the back of their parents’ heads. 

In Western cultures, the two-parent nuclear family has come to stand as the ideal family unit. A concept rooted in white supremacy, the prioritization of the nuclear family has completely dismantled the community's involvement in helping to raise children. As Black people step further away from community led parenting and into nuclear families, not only do many parents find themselves struggling without the support of a village, but children lose out, too. As sociologist Bell Hooks says in her novel All About Love, “In our [Western] culture the private family dwelling is the one institutionalized sphere of power that can easily be autocratic and fascistic.” Today, this is embodied through technology, as some of the most surveilled people in the United States switch out the eyes of the community for the eyes of Amazon’s Echo Dot, baby monitors equipped with video and audio, and others. 

The paranoia that comes with parenting is hard to escape. I’ve missed hours of sleep due to waking myself up so that I can listen and ensure my child is breathing. When creating my baby registry, people often asked if I would be putting a baby monitor on my list. When I was a child, baby monitors were basically glorified walkie talkies. Their simplicity still couldn’t stop frequency from being mixed and people possibly talking to your child through the monitor. Now, there are models that would hook up with my cell phone so I could watch the baby sleep as I was in another room. But as I got closer to the birth of my child all I could think of was the thought of me having eyes in the back of my head. Or the deep possibility that someone else's eyes could be on my child.

“How do children learn to object the camera or omnipresence posed by digital devices if it's firstly presented as their mothers love or a cute tiger to help with all their problems?”

Baby monitors are no longer the primary technology parents use to help them watch their children at home. There is technology to monitor children’s heart rates, children’s smart watches, and even Amazon’s Echo Dot comes in cute little animal designs marketed at kids. They can ask Alexa to play their favorite songs, or help them with a math problem. While some of these products can be helpful for children/parents with disabilities or limited resources,  I argue that children like mine, who are from communities that are highly surveilled, will grow up with a natural acceptance to the technologically-driven surveillance state. How do children learn to object the camera or omnipresence posed by digital devices if it's firstly presented as their mothers love or a cute tiger to help with all their problems? 

There are ways for people to combat this problem and one is by abandoning the nuclear family. Instead of seeing parents and their children as neat, individual units which must operate alone, community members must step up to help parents and parents must be willing to accept help while establishing boundaries, with the overall goal being what is best for the child. This isn’t something that is going to happen overnight, especially when many don’t know who they can call their community, but it has happened before.

The “nana” archetype of the older Black matriarch who takes care of the children in the neighborhood hasn’t fully gone away, it’s merely adapted into other platforms. For example, Black Muslim parents in the Washington, D.C. area have created homeschooling co-opts where parents come together, prepare a budget, create their childrens curriculum and choose the teacher they want for their children. This system also ensures that the parents’ schedules can be upheld and assures that Black Muslim children can be taken care of in an environment tailored for the growth.

Social media also offers a plethora of resources for parents to navigate such changes. For example, judgement free parenting groups allow many perspectives on raising kids, mapping out who in your immediate community can help to aid you and your child, and communicating with those people your wants and needs for your child while allowing your child to have a voice too. I’ve found groups on platforms like Facebook and Clubhouse that have motivated me as a young Black Muslim mother. Establishing those collective aunties and uncles that can hold you accountable and vice versa — even if that person isn’t physically around — will help to alleviate parents’ paranoia and replace it with more holistic approaches. While only baby steps in the path of community centered parenting, these small resources provide parents and their children with a more holistic lifestyle, free from the gaze of the technological all seeing eye.

Sadiyah Bashir is a freelance writer and award winning poet. Her poetry has been commissioned by Penny Appeal USA and Apple, she has also performed for international media outlets such as Al-Jazeera. Her first self-published book entitled “Seven” explores trauma and triumph through the lens of Black Muslim womanhood. Bashir can be found on all social media @idabwellin.