Naked City

Online Day Care: The Whole World Is Watching

Naked City
By Doug Potter

Your daughter sits at a table of laughing children, shaving cream slathered on her cheeks and chin like a spongy white beard. This morning was one of those days (temper tantrums, tearful goodbyes), but for her, that fiasco is ancient history. This makes you smile. You watch a few more minutes, breathe deeply, and log off. Afterward, work seems so much easier.

For parents whose children attend a day care with online Webcast, a growing enterprise in which parents with Internet access can check up on their sons and daughters throughout the day, this scenario is a reality. Although online day cares were around as early as 1996, they have just recently begun to proliferate, as ordinary Americans have begun to appreciate the general usefulness of technology. For a culture that seems genuinely conflicted about how to balance work and family obligations, online day cares can be useful tools: They grant out-of-town relatives a window to a child's growth, assuage lingering parental guilt, and, most importantly, offer peace of mind. Day cares are reaping the benefits, too: Going online helps centers to better ensure child safety and start nipping employee misconduct in the bud.

Started by Eric Foster in Dallas in 1996, Watch Me Grow (http://www.watchmegrow.com) installs at least two video cameras in each classroom, at no cost to a center, for which parents pay a subscription cost of $20 a month (in addition to the center's tuition). Due to a variety of limitations, what a parent sees on his or her computer screen is not motion-picture-like video with sound -- Watch Me Grow predicts that's three to four years away -- instead, they see a series of snapshots which update continually, a kind of flip book to a child's day. Watch Me Grow, recently relocated to Bellevue, Washington, provides its services to 60% of the approximately 150 online day cares across the country, according to president Bruce Loften. And business is booming these days, with 20 new centers being added to the roster each month. One such center, a member of the Children's Courtyard chain (which installed Watch Me Grow technology in its Texas centers years ago), is set to open this month in Pflugerville at 1308 Grand Ave.

"Parents love this," enthuses Kim Kofron, director of the Harris Branch Children's Courtyard. She admits it takes some handholding at first -- parental concerns range from the roving eyes of an online hacker or an electronic Big Brother in the classroom -- but in the end, she explains, "It's a great comfort to both parents and staff." To assure privacy, Watch Me Grow has put several safeguards in place: Passwords are given exclusively to parents and changed monthly; parents can only access their child's classroom; and the physical locations of day cares are not listed on the site. "We do the same thing a child care provider would do," explains Loften. "Day cares offer an open-door policy." But instead of making monthly lunchtime visits, busy parents can visit as often as they can log on -- which, for Watch Me Grow subscribers, is an average of 4.8 times a day.

But as with any new technology, the threat of unintended consequences looms large. For Jay Jacobson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, technologies like online day care reside in an ever-expanding gray area. "It's too fraught with novelty" for organizations like the ACLU to have any official opinion, he says. But it doesn't take long to make a laundry list of possible repercussions. What happens to those outdated lunchtime visits, anyway? And what about those alarming, out-of-context photos? Your toddler wailing in the corner in his underwear?

It happens. At Children's Courtyard, the rooms are equipped with phones, and concerned parents can ring up the day care workers to find out that Jimmy wet his pants and refuses to change. And though such checkups seem potentially disruptive, Kofron says that, in her experience, they strengthen communication between parents and teachers.

And since online day care is clearly optional -- for both parents and employees -- there is little concern about privacy infringement. But when does broadcasting your child's development stop? After online day cares, do public schools go online? Imagine your mother spying on you in gym class -- the horror! Perhaps the bottom line is, as Jacobson says, "There are very few people who are thinking about the ramifications of technology in society."

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