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Walt Disney Stalks Your Child:

Publication Date: 2006-06-16

Mark Morford is a screechingly funny San Francisco Chronicle online columnist whose humor always makes a deeper point: technology has stomped on in and has taken childhood by the throat and is right now handing a cell phone to every child over 5 years old, telling them it's absolutely mandatory that they be able to call Mom or Dad or the police at a moment's notice...

June 16, 2006


It was time to do something drastic.

It was summer. It was a weekend. It was a mild suburban Spokane middle-class upbringing and I was perfectly fed up with it all, but especially with always being told what to do: Clean your room, eat your asparagus, sweep the driveway, unbury the dog, quit touching yourself there, stop dealing heroin and Pop Rocks in the school yard and mowing lawns in the shape of a skull and crossbones. You know, typical.

I was about 8. Maybe 9. Our painfully idyllic young lifestyles bearing heavily upon us, my friend Paul and I decided to make a run for it. To split that crazy nightmare suburbia scene and get the hell out, once and for all. Enough of the endless chaos of raking leaves and the anxiety around the eating of peas. Enough, you know, working for the Man. Let's do it. Let's run away from home.

We had our bikes. We had our backpacks. We had some extra socks and underwear and about $4 between us and it was an aforementioned warm summer's day as we snuck away without anyone noticing, and we rode and rode for what seemed forever, on and on and on, until we ended up at this fabulously cool construction site radiating all manner of scrap wood and unfinished buildings and lots of glorious nooks and crannies for us to build our ideal hideaway fort.

It was perfect. We were, I believe, less than one mile from home. But it might as well have been the moon because no one knew where we were. The devil had yet to invent cell phones or GPS or implantable RFID chips and hence it was still possible to get away and, for all intents and purposes, vanish from the face of the Earth. Ah, the glory of it.

We leaned some planks up against a tree. We found a beat-up tarp for a doorway. We collected nails and hunks of scrap wood (for ammo) and dug in. There was a small market right nearby (excellent strategic planning on our part -- access to cheap candy was, like, right there) and we stocked up on supplies: one box of Honeycomb, four generic grape sodas, a large bag of potato chips. We had 75 cents left over for, you know, emergencies.

I have no idea how we thought we were going to survive. I have no idea how long we thought we would last. I remember that scarythilling rush of newfound independence, like I was leaving home forever and I was finally free of all rules and boundaries. I remember the taste of dry Honeycomb and the smell of the sawdust and imagining everyone's horrified, distraught expressions when they found I was gone forever. Let this be a lesson to them all! We laughed and strategized and got nicely sugared up and felt all rebellious and disobedient.

Until it started to get cold. And we started to get hungry again. And our flashlight didn't work. And the construction site quickly turned from friendly welcoming wonderland into dusky creepy shadowland. And so we did what every normal preteen runaway does in this situation: We quickly rode home. In time for dinner.

I now guesstimate that our radical rebellion lasted roughly six hours. During this time, I do believe my parents had no idea where I was. Not only that, but when I returned, they didn't even realize I had gone. I remember this being rather humiliating, because if there's one thing worse than failing in your defiance of authority, it's having authority smile warmly when you walk back in the door and offer you a bowl of hot macaroni and cheese with little bits of cut-up hot dogs in it. Bastards!

Alas, it is but a faint memory. And it's also a scenario that might well be disappearing from the face of the culture. No more tiny but fiercely independent romps into the unknown for modern postmillennial kids. No more untethered visits to where the wild things are.

And why? Because technology has stomped on in and has taken childhood by the throat and is right now handing a cell phone to every child over 5 years old, telling them it's absolutely mandatory that they be able to call Mom or Dad or the police at a moment's notice because, oh my God, have you seen the news? Child molesters are everywhere. Sexual predators are lurking behind every MySpace page. Leave the neighborhood without telling anyone? Ride your bike to mysterious parts unknown? What are you, insane?

Indeed, there's a whole slew of new phones and services aimed at the under-10 set (see the LG Migo[Verizon's Chaperone offers invisible fence to parents], the Firefly, etc.), cute little bug-like things designed with a handful of preset buttons that instantly dial Mom/Dad or the police or the fire department or perhaps (if you live in Colorado Springs) a disapproving and suspicious God.

But this isn't the sad part. It's this: The big telecoms are now offering a new service to parents wherein, for an extra monthly fee, you can log in to your PC and actually track your child's movements based on the location of his/her kiddie phone. True. And one of the biggest new providers of such happy creepy family surveillance? Disney. Shudder.

But it doesn't stop there. Not only can you check your kids' whereabouts, but for an extra fee, you can have the system alert you whenever your kid goes beyond preset boundaries. That's right, you can be sitting there innocently surfing hard-core German fetish porn when -- beep-beep-beep -- an alarm goes off letting you know little Dakota has crossed the half-mile radius of the house and might be ... I don't know what. Smoking. Playing with matches. Joining the Taliban.

Oh, I know. It's a perfectly reasonable concept. It's every mildly paranoid parent's wet dream. Hell, kids today are crazy, right? They could just as easily wander over to the wrong side of the tracks as buy a plane ticket to Vegas to meet some guy they met on MySpace. Hence, such phones are admittedly a bit useful.

But it still must be said: Much of the cosmic point of getting lost in the mall or riding your Schwinn too far into another mysterious neighborhood is not being able to call your mom at the slightest whiff of the perilous unknown. This is, after all, how you begin to learn to figure the world out for yourself. This is how you make the soul snap to attention. Fear awakens the mind. The survival instinct learns to French-kiss the Mystery.

Of course, you might argue that it's still possible for even halfway intelligent, rebellious kids to disobey, to break the rules and split their horrible cushy suburban Ritalin lives and explore the construction sites of their own independent souls. And I'm sure many of them are already catching on.

You want to run away from home? You want to really feel the world, kiddo, even if it's just a few blocks away? You want to experience true danger and mutiny and independence, a feeling that even adults can no longer handle without freaking out and looking terrified? That's easy. Just leave the damn phone at home, silly.

Thoughts for the author? E-mail him.
mmorford@sfgate.com


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