A very 'Big Brother' type of technology can spy on your kids at school for you. Should you use it?

I first saw the alerts one afternoon when I was working at my desk two weeks ago.

I first saw the alerts one afternoon when I was working at my desk two weeks ago.

A series of notifications about my son popped up on my phone.


What was going on? Was he skipping school? I began to wonder if my usually responsible firstborn, a high school junior, was suddenly developing a taste for rebellion and the thrill of forbidden joyrides or something.

I am a big proponent of the golden rule in all things. So instead of jumping to conclusions, I entertained other extenuating circumstances. Because I knew he was planning on talking to his counselor about changing classes around, I figured something might have gotten jumbled in the attendance system. It turns out, that's exactly what was going on.

But imagine if I'd jumped on him when he walked in the door that afternoon, demanding to know why he wasn't in class (when he really was)? It would have created a needlessly negative situation — something many parents and kids navigating the tenuous teen years don't need any more of.

This was my first experience with CampusPortal, an iPhone app that hooks into the grading and attendance bookkeeping system by Infinite Campus that some schools use.

It's one example of how technology companies are trying to assist parents in helping their kids to juggle deadlines.

High school: It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

Remember the pressures of finishing big papers and passing tests, the social events, trying to get the hang of this "being a productive, well-liked person" schtick?

"If I smile at my homework, maybe it won't suck my soul right out of my still breathing body and torture it for a thousand years." Image by Amanda Mills/CDC.

It's a lot to manage even in the most positive circumstances (when kids have attuned, caring adults in their lives to help).

But "CampusPortal" can help parents be more involved by keeping them apprised of attendance and grades.

In real-time, the app sends you notifications as grades are entered for your student:

These are screenshots from my own son's school life, which he's given permission to share (that's important, parents — in the social media age, we can damage our precious two-way trust when we put our kids on blast without checking with them first).

In some ways, these updates have been helpful. It's a consistent frame of reference for how much work is on my son's plate, which helps me be mindful of how much more I'm asking him to do when I assign other tasks. And it helps me keep my eye on a part of my son's life that he would sometimes prefer to talk about in vaguenesses.

But is technology putting us in danger of micromanaging our kids to a damaging degree?

In other ways, these notifications are tempting little morsels that invite me to pore over details of my child's life that he needs the practice (and space) to manage on his own.

There's a lot of potential for annoyance here.

For instance, if I'd been a certain kind of parent (or I guess if my son had a habit of being truant) I might have looked at the series of absences and assumed my child had skipped most of the school day.

And heaven knows if I'd had someone keeping an eye on every itty bitty detail when I was between the ages of 16 and 18, it would probably have backfired pretty badly in the form of resentment and refusal to fit neatly into "authority's" little boxes.

Here's what my son says about it:

"I feel like it's a good attempt at trying to keep us from goofing off and doing stupid things, but it's too Big Brother-y; it infringes too much on our rights. Whether we've signed them off to the school or not, we should have more freedom than that. It feels creepy that no matter what, I'm just tracked by that. And if I'm marked truant for being late to a class because I was helping a teacher, then I might have to hear about it later from a parent even though nothing bad occurred. It leaves out necessary context."

I get what he's saying. You might feel pretty motivated to do a good job and be a respectable student of your own free will but then have that positivity micromanaged right out of you with an app like this.

"I like to break a mental sweat." Image by GnarlyCraig/Wikimedia Commons.

You see, intrinsic motivation is pretty important to human development, but it doesn't get talked about a lot.

There's no way to really measure it and evaluate it and win awards for making a career out of revolutionizing it because there's not a good way to systematize it.

What even is intrinsic motivation?

"Intrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, the motivation to engage in a behavior arises from within the individual because it is intrinsically rewarding. This contrasts with extrinsic motivation, which involves engaging in a behavior in order to earn external rewards or avoid punishments." — About Education

Getting to the root of intrinsic motivation is a deeply personal, case-by-case kind of thing. And only each individual can do it. A coach, parent, or mentor can help us tap into it, but ultimately it's up to us ourselves to identify it and feed that beast to keep it going. And too much of the extrinsic kind of motivation can interfere with a person ever really getting to the root of what moves them to pursue things.

Carrots are a nice after school snack and all, but maybe not the best method for having truly self-motivated humans. Image by Alan O'Rourke/Flickr.

It's important to remember this when we look at systematizing every little part of the education system. Some things, like intrinsic motivation, aren't easily "scalable." It requires one-on-one time with teachers and allowing educators and parents the time and space to really get to know what works and doesn't for each kid.

So how good is this tool, really?

"It gives me less leeway to bullshit you."

In the end, I think it's like Facebook, the Internet in general, and GPS — it's only a tool that's as good as the hands and minds that are using it. If it is being used as means of micromanagement without a deeper understanding of our kids, then yikes. But if it gets people to pay more attention to what's going in kids' lives and is being used judiciously to be a good helper to kids, then yay!

In spite of his criticisms, my son also acknowledged this app could be helpful. For instance, instead of having wrongful truancies listed on his record long-term (which would have been difficult to go back and rectify with clarity months later), I was able to get to the bottom of the attendance mixup and get it fixed immediately.

"At the same time, it gives me less leeway to bullshit you," he admitted with a sheepish chuckle. And let's be honest — we all value a little wiggle room to prioritize our own time on our own terms.

Axel had a good day today. I can see that he got a 100% on his AP literature quiz and that he's been marked present in every class. But when he walks in the door, instead of congratulating him and flexing my "I have eyes everywhere" muscle, I will use some self-restraint and let him share about his day in his own time and in his own way.

After all, that's how I'd want someone to treat me.

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