These four gadgets are dooming childhoods around the world

Let the kids play alone.
Let the kids play alone.
Image: Reuters/Yuri Gripas
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Welcome to the future of childhood: Remote-controlled by adults.

The idea of letting kids do anything on their own is rapidly growing quaint. At this very moment, for instance, the state of Rhode Island is considering making it illegal for any child under 12 to get off a school bus without an adult waiting at the stop to chaperone him home.

But by 2024, today’s level of supervision—especially the sometimes unanswered “Where are you?” texts—may look laughably lax. That’s because the new portable, wearable, even ingestible technologies coming down the pike will inevitably be tweaked for kids and sold to parents as safety must-haves. In fact, it’s already happening.

Among the latest gadgets seeking Indigogo funding is the MiniBrake: A remote control for your child’s bike, invented in Hungary. “When you sense that your kid is in danger, you just press the controller and your child’s bike comes to a safe and smooth stop,” the copy reads.

Go into any AT&T store and you can buy the FiLIP,” a cute little tracking device for your favorite felon…er…first grader. It’s actually a bright, sturdy, high-tech wristband that lets parents pinpoint their child’s location (indoors or out), that doubles as a phone they can pre-program with five trusted contacts. It also triples as an emergency device—the kid can push a red button that immediately calls all five numbers till someone picks up. (Naturally, the call is then recorded.) And it quadruples as a sort of invisible fence, letting parents know anytime their kid wanders beyond whatever “safe zone” they have set up.

The fact that it was invented in Scandinavia—the part of the world arguably most famous for letting its babies nap unattended in the freezing cold—just goes to show that heightened fears are goosing high tech (and vice versa) around the globe.

In fact, Japan has taken kiddie surveillance once step further and developed a prototype similar to the FiLIP but worn on the chest, measuring a child’s heart rate. If that rate goes up, the assumption is that maybe the child is being bullied, or worse, so the monitor immediately snaps a photo of whatever (or whomever!) the child is facing.

The idea that the child’s heart is racing because she’s running around doesn’t seem to come into play. In fact, play doesn’t seem to come into play. By 2024, it’s possible that letting kids do anything on their own will be considered completely irresponsible, or even insane. But just knowing a child’s whereabouts won’t be enough. Parents will also know what’s going on inside their kids.

Once DNA analysis upon birth becomes routine, children’s diets and lifestyles will change, says Will Palley, trends strategist at the ad agency JWT. The genomic read-out will allow parents to identify health problems or proclivities from Day One. “Armed with that information, expect parents to customize their child’s diet from a very early age, considering very carefully what they give their child to ensure longevity,” Palley says.

Parents may go so far as to give their kids ingestibles”— tiny, swallow-able sensors that emit signals that can be picked up by a smart phone. These already exist, but their signals are weak. Eventually, these may be strengthened and fine-tuned to measure whatever metric parents want to know about: Is their child eating too much sugar? Fat? Gluten? If so, they can adjust their kids’ meals accordingly.

In fact, parents may control every step, bite and minute of their kids’ day…unless the current counter-trend continues to gain momentum. The popularity of things like homeschooling, unschooling and the hit book “Free to Learn,” by Peter Gray, may convince the next generation of parents that the most well-adjusted, problem-solving kids are the ones who grow up spending the bulk of their time playing…or at least not programmed. If so, the most ambitious parents could latch on to this “new” idea: Free-time = successful kids. Considering the popularity of basic, back-to-nature programs to “fix” wealthy, troubled kids, a similar curriculum may work its way into the mainstream.

If so, by 2024, parents could be demanding more outdoor options for their kids, even in cities. “Leaders, desperate for the family vote,” will develop more parks, trails and bike lanes, says the UK’s Tim Gill, author of Rethinking Childhood. They’ll also tackle traffic, making it safer for kids to venture outside. As a recent meme pointed out: The richest cities aren’t the ones where poor people have cars, they’re the ones where the rich people ride public transit. That could become an international goal.

Moreover, as child development experts delve into the topic of resiliency, “Parents are beginning to think about risk-taking,” says Susan Solomon, author of American Playgrounds, and an upcoming book, The Science of Play. There is already a trend to start building “beneficial risk” into playgrounds: higher swings, uneven surfaces, climbing trees. These teach kids how to pay attention and roll with some of the punches we’ve been systematically excising from their lives.

It’s also quite possible all these seemingly opposite trends will merge, and 2024 kids will be romping through ever wilder parks with the kind of abandon that comes from their parents being at work, watching them on a screen, photographing their companions, monitoring their snacks, listening to their conversations and applying the brakes on anything and everything from afar.

It may be as close as future kids ever come to freedom.