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Marketing Madness and Gadgets

Readers — It’s weird enough when we are warned that our bumper stickers are busy attracting predators. Now there is a new line of school bus that videos the cars behind it, on the bizarre assumption that these may be driven by predators so unsure of where else to find a child that they are following the big, yellow kiddie dispenser. And that’s not to mention the thumbprint recognition and tracking of the students, as if THEY were predators: 

A brief glance won’t tell you the new buses are equipped with voice-over-IP communication systems, or that they transmit data on speed, location and acceleration in real-time. The “Thumbs-Up!” thumbprint scanner, which keeps track of which kids are on the bus and whether they’re supposed to be there, is also hard to see unless you’re really pressing your face to the glass, as are the multiple interior security cameras.

Slightly easier to notice is the rear-facing camera, dubbed — no joke — the “Pedophile Finder.” “I wish we could have come up with a better name for it,” says Dallas County Schools spokeswoman Allison Allison. (Yes, that’s the correct name.) The camera, mounted on the top portion of the school bus and positioned to capture the license plate of tailing vehicles, isn’t just to catch pedophiles. It could be a parent who lost custody of their child, or a kidnapper. But “Pedophile Finder” was the name that stuck. “The bus driver can’t tell if somebody’s tailing him but if they recognize a pattern of a car following a bus” based on video, they can take appropriate measures.

I’m really curious what those “appropriate measures” are. Slam on the brakes and wait for the crash? Alert the police, “There’s  a car behind me!”  Get out of the bus and demand to see if the driver is wearing pants? Please, PLEASE protest if your school district even CONSIDERS these add-ons as “necessary for the safety of our children.” – L. 

To catch a predator...while driving a bus.

To catch a bus-tailgating predator.

Readers – This is a wonderful and well-researched piece on Slate by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, who seems to have written articles on everything that interests and outrages me, including Satanic panic  (a FANTASTIC and oh-so-disturbing story), and how junk science can put innocent people behind bars for a very long time. But this time she’s writing about high-tech baby monitors like the Mimo and Owlet, sold to parents as essential for peace of mind:

If only mom had an iron lung to attach me to, then she could be SURE I'm breathing!

If only mom had an iron lung to attach me to, then she could be SURE I’m breathing!

Linda writes:

[The American Academy of Pediatricians advises] “Avoid commercial devices marketed to reduce the risk of SIDS. … There is no evidence that these devices reduce the risk of SIDS or suffocation or that they are safe.” And: “Do not use home cardiorespiratory monitors as a strategy to reduce the risk of SIDS. … They might be of value for selected infants but should not be used routinely.” (In fact, there’s some evidence that they might not be safe: In November, monitor behemoth Angelcare voluntarily recalled 600,000 under-mattress sensor pads after two infants died of strangulation when the cord attached to the pad wrapped around their necks.)

The point is clear: Infant monitors, even the newest generation of smartphone-friendly wearable tech, do not reduce the risk of SIDS. And while the creators of devices like Mimo agree, Dr. Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, calls Mimo’s claim that it is not presenting its device as SIDS protection “disingenuous”…

Lenore here: Disingenuous is a nice word for “Hucksterism.” Not only can’t these devices prevent SIDS, they actually spread EXCESS worry by making it seem like a sleeping baby is in danger every single second. No wonder parents are so crazed with fear. NOTHING — not even a baby in a crib — is safe enough for us to let our guard down a sec.

And so begins the great parent freak-out, brought to us  by the endlessly inventive and seemingly recession-proof Child Safety-Industrial Complex.

Hey Readers – Here’s a piece I wrote for the Wall Street Journal a little while back that I can now legally reprint here!

Bringing Up Baby and Fretting About Vital Signs

New gadgets, like diapers that monitor kidney function, are turning baby nurseries into ICUs.


Almost anything you can put on a baby is cute. A hat. Sunglasses. A bib (especially the one that says, “Some moron put my cape on backwards!”). But now comes the Owlet Baby Monitor—a little electronic device strapped to a sock at bedtime.

It measures your baby’s heart rate, blood oxygen levels, skin temperature, sleep quality and sleeping position. Then it streams all this information to your smart phone.Phew! At last you know your baby’s blood oxygen level! Except . . . I don’t even know my own blood oxygen level. Do you know yours? It’s just not something most of us have ever even thought about, because it seems to take care of itself.

So who needs this kind of data about their babies? According to Dr. Kenneth Bromberg, chairman of pediatrics at the Brooklyn Hospital Center, no one. He can’t see any medical or safety reason to get one of these devices. What’s worse, he says, “This is an invitation to craziness. It will make you neurotic and anxious. I don’t see how any new parent with that gadget won’t be driven insane.”

But crazy as it may be, this thing is on the market, and it’s just one beeping bit of a whole culture dedicated to treating normal, healthy kids as if they need constant medical attention.

This explains the “Smart Diaper” already in prototype. Developed by New York-based Pixie Scientific, the diaper has a QR code on the front. When a baby pees, the code turns different colors depending on the chemical content of the, um, liquid. The parent then takes a photo of the diaper with a smart phone, which analyzes the code’s colors to determine if the baby has an infection, or possibly diabetes, or maybe even a kidney malfunction.

God forbid you just use an old-fashioned, dumb diaper and figure that if the kid looks OK, his kidneys probably are too. Big baby data is undermining the belief that any kid is equipped to make it from today till tomorrow without intense technological scrutiny.

This trend began with audio baby monitors, and I bought right into the culture, setting one up next to our son’s crib even though we were living in a one-bedroom apartment. Ack! It was impossible not to hear him crying, even without the monitor. But somehow I thought also hearing a second, staticky version was vitally important.

Then came video monitors, then infra-red video monitors, then pivoting infra-red monitors that sweep the room all night, which always struck me as something Osama bin Laden might have wanted to invest in. But a normal parent of a healthy child? Only if they’re in the witness-protection program.

Anyway, those room monitors seem almost quaint now that we’ve got these wearable ones—with more variations than you can shake a rattle at.

For instance, there’s the SafeToSleep Breathing Monitor, a sheet with sensors built in to monitor every single breath of your baby and alert your smart phone if these stop (which can happen if the kid rolls off the mat). Which sounds exactly like the iBabyGuard, which sounds quite similar to the AngelCare AC1100—all of them are promising parents peace of mind.

But really, this kind of device delivers just the opposite. “While it’s supposed to reassure you, what it is going to do is create more worry,” says David M. Reiss, a San Diego, Calif., psychiatrist who just finished a stint training Harvard medical students. “You’re basically setting up a type of ICU vigilance which isn’t indicated.”

Not to mention all those new arguments: “Honey—it’s your turn to read the smart phone.”

But it is the Owlet baby monitor that seems to have reached the apex of apoplexy. “Although you can see your child’s tummy moving, you have no idea how much oxygen she is really getting!” warns the Owlet website—as if somehow that whole breathing-equals-living thing just can’t be taken for granted.

And, eventually, it may not be. When and if these geegaws become as common as Mozart mobiles, it could be only a matter of time before they are required by law at day care centers, and then schools and then—who knows?—maybe even college.

After all, don’t you want to know your child’s heart rate and sleep positions when he’s in bed far away from you?


From my mailbox, ever-filled with flacks seeking publicity:

Hi there – Hope you’re well.

Wanted to reach out quickly with an interesting snow storm related story idea: with kids stuck at home with a snow day, they are more likely to be on their smartphones/computers, increasing the chances of them cyberbullying someone or getting cyberbullied themselves….

If you’re interested, I have a client that launched the first anti-cyberbullying app today…

The Flakes of Doom.

The Flakes of Doom.

What’s next? “Hi there. Hope you’re well. With all the snow, your children will be surrounded by white crystals, perhaps starting them on a tragic life of cocaine addiction….”

And if being inside is so dang dangerous, why not just send the kids out to PLAY IN THE SNOW? – L




Hi Readers — I was only vaguely aware of the shelf elf, so I’m grateful to reader Frankie Wood, who just sent this in:

Dear Free-Range Kids: I know, Christmas is past now, but the topic of the Elf on a Shelf came up in a recent conversation and since I don’t have my own blog in which to rant, I thought it be an interesting (if belated) topic for you.  Have you heard of this thing?  It’s a little elf doll that comes with a book explaining all about how hateful Santa is that if you aren’t a wonderful little angel you will suffer the consequences.  Your parents stick the thing on a shelf somewhere and it watches you all day and then reports to Santa at night.  Parents are supposed to move it around at night.

The whole idea creeps me out.  Several of my mom friends love it, but when I asked during this recent conversation, all of them admitted to never having read George Orwell’s 1984 which might explain why I am more frightened of the idea than they were.  Not only does it go against all of my own notions of Christmas being about unconditional love,  but what are we telling our kids by spying on them?

First, I think we are telling them that we don’t trust them.  It’s like those horrible Rogers home security ads that tell you that you need to be able to watch your kid come home from school.  If you trust them to come home alone, then you trust them.  If you don’t, don’t let them.  But don’t SPY on them!!!!  Second, we are creating an environment in which there is a good chance that kids will only behave if they think they are being watched.  I want my kids to learn appropriate behaviour as a core value, to be practiced ESPECIALLY when they AREN’T being watched.

But my biggest “creepy” complaint is that we are raising a generation of kids who will think its totally normal and acceptable for their parents (or the creepy Elf, or Big Brother) to watch their every move!  It really is 1984 becoming reality.

Anyhow, I thought you might have some fun with this whole idea and turn it into something much better than I can write. – Frankie

Lenore here: Nope! You nailed it, Frankie! 

Peekaboo! I see you! I see all! (Photo: ChicagoNow)

Peekaboo! I see you! I see all! 


Readers — As you know, the government has been spying on us all, from plebes to prime ministers. But National Security Agency agents look like pikers compared with plain old American parents, who are being encouraged to treat their kids as enemy agents whose every move must be observed, tracked, tapped or taped.

It’s all to “Keep our kids safe!”, of course, the greatest slogan since — well, there is no greater slogan once you’re a parent. (Before you’re a parent, it’s, “This will get you a date!”)

Here’s an ad for just one of the many new surveillance products being peddled to parents. Mind you, this is for a “basic” package. I guess that means it doesn’t paw through your child’s drawers.

No cavity searches, either.

If you have asked yourself just one of these questions, the (device whose name I am deleting because I hate it) is for you!

Do you fear for your child’s safety?

Do you live in a dangerous neighborhood?

Does your child have to enter any unsafe environments?

Are they traveling somewhere without you?

Do you suspect that your child is lying to you about where they are or who they are with?

Is your child not picking up their phone when you call them?

Is your child being bullied or bullying someone else?

Is your child receiving nude photos from anyone?

Is your child sexting?

We all know it’s impossible to be with your child 24/7. That’s why (this hideous intrusion on your child’s privacy and sense of self) is an ideal product to keep your child safe in a growing digital world. (This particular trust destroyer) provides innovative software that assists in keeping your child safer, whether it’s through the captured call log, messages and chats, or GPS location component. Upon downloading, choose to leave the software detected or undetected, arm your child with the Panic Button for a quick and easy way to get help in an emergency, or even turn the mic on your child’s device to listen in real time.

Ultimately, [this Orwellian invention] facilitates another line of defense between a child’s mobile device and an anonymous online environment.

Got that? So if you are a parent whose child has ever had the temerity to travel “somewhere without you,” that’s reason enough to take up espionage. And dear me, “is your child not picking up their phone when you call them?”

Of course he’s not! No child picks up the phone every time Mom calls, just as no adult picks up the phone every time Mom calls! Is it time for your mother to spy on you?

It’s not time to spy on anybody, but this obsessive snooping is being presented as if it were just a normal thing good parents do. This particular system not only locates your kid’s whereabouts via GPS but also scans all emails and reads all texts. What’s more, its website suggests you “activate the microphone to listen in on calls without being detected to get firsthand insights.”

Isn’t that illegal? There must be some parental loophole. And don’t forget: The device also serves as an ambient microphone, so you can hear whatever your child is saying even when he or she is not on the phone. “Find out what’s really going on with your child before it’s too late!”

Ah, but by the time you are spying on everything your child says, does, looks at or listens to, it already is too late. You aren’t really a parent, any more than an undercover agent is really who he’s pretending to be.

I jusr hope I”m nor around when you’re discovered.

spy 22


Readers — I got this letter yesterday in my email. Why does it make me SO MAD?


“Children are Unique, Beautiful and Fragile” begins its CRAVEN plea.


I’m losing it! I really feel this is a HORRIBLE thing to say or even IMPLY. I probably sound like I am in FAVOR of child maiming. I’m not! I just HATE this plea to emotion and terror when it comes to KIDS. It is INFECTIOUS!


Here’s the charity’s WHOLE LETTER — it’s just four sentences of SKIN CRAWLING smarm!  (And I’m sorry I keep updating this post — I just keep getting madder!) – L

What Snowflakes and Kids Have in Common

Kids are unique, beautiful and fragile. 

Help us keep every child safe this holiday season.

Please donate today - http://sk.convio.net/site/R?i=EwYoCgtfiw2yzv5Khmr4Vw

Thank you for your generosity,

Safe Kids Worldwide

Just like kids, snowflakes are beautiful and die really fast.

Just like kids, snowflakes are beautiful and doomed. (Caption, Lenore’s.)