Cameras in the nursery linked to the Internet enable parents anywhere in the world to keep an eye on their children. Does it promote peace of mind or does it smack of Big Brother? Linda Blackburne investigates
Imagine watching your granddaughter playing in her nursery on the Internet from 12,000 miles away in Australia. Imagine being an anxious working mother and logging into the Internet to check your daughter had stopped crying after you dropped her off at pre-school.
Or imagine a nursery proprietor using the Internet to monitor a nursery nurse whom she thinks isn't up to scratch.
All this is happening now in the United States, and it is taking off in this country. So far, only private nurseries have installed web cameras because at Pounds 944 each, only the independent sector can afford to. But what does ParentNet, as it is called, mean for the future? Will all nurseries soon be wired up to the Net, and what are the implications for primary and secondary schools?
The system is simple and cost-effective, according to Axis Communications, the Swedish network and web appliances company, which is promoting ParentNet. The nursery installs three cameras in different parts of the building which are connected to the Internet, and parents pay a subscription of Pounds 10 a month. In six months thecameras pay for themselves. Nurseries can use ParentNet as a marketing device to attract more clients, and parents can go to work knowing that they can watch their children live on screen whenever they want.
The system is up and running in a group of nurseries owned by Kids 'r Kids. Eventually the American company hopes to install ParentNet in its 2,000 nurseries across the US. A UK trial will start soon at a new, state-of-the-art, private nursery in Islington, north London, called Hopes and Dreams.
Parents' main concern in the States has been security. How safe is it for pictures of their children to be bounced around the globe?
Axis says the system is only installed if every parent at the nursery wants it. If only one parent objects, the idea is dropped, but so far no parent has objected, says Bodil Sonesson, general manager UK for Axis. In the first US trial, 149 out of 150 parents subscribed to ParentNet.
The system includes a security mechanism to ensure that only parents can gain access to the cameras in the nurseries. Parents use a password to access the cameras from anywhere in the world via the Internet. So mothers and fathers travelling in Europe can log into the Internet and watch their children in a nursery in London.
Patrik Nilsson, UK managing director for Axis, says: "This is truly a case of high technology providing a sol-ution. No matter how positive parents feel about their child's nursery, this system gives the added reassur-ance of being able to 'drop in' at any time. Although light surveillance has been available before, Axis has, for the first time, consolidated hardware and software components into a single unit."
But do the nurseries think it is an invasion of their privacy?
"No," says Ms Sonesson. "Parents who are anxious want to look at their children. It gives them a secure feeling. It also helps parents who want to take a bigger part in their children's lives. The purpose of the camera is not surveil-lance. It's to give parents a snapshot. The question of whether primary schools will want to use it is a very difficult one but why not?" Yvonne Vallance, who runs the Buttercups day nursery and Montessori school in West Drayton, near Heathrow airport, doubts ParentNet will catch on in primary schools. What would be the purpose?
In a nursery the purpose is clear. For the cost of a phone call, working parents can see their sons and daughters working, sleeping, eating and playing with other children or by themselves.
However, when the seven-strong chain of private Buttercups nurseries were approached by Axis for a demonstration, both staff and parents were full of doubts and apprehension about the usefulness of ParentNet.
"To begin with I was quite concerned on a number of issues," says Miss Vallance. "The first being security. My main fear and the fear of every single one of the nursery nurses was it would allow paedophiles to gain access to the system. There are times when children can be running around naked. It is just one of those things - this is their home when their parents are at work. "
But Axis reassured them that every parent would have their own Pin number to access the pictures and it was up to parents to look after that Pin just as they would a cashpoint card number.
Miss Vallance's other main fear was that people would be able to see her celebrity parents dropping off and picking up their children. She did not want to breach the privacy and security of famous families.
But, if as hoped, the Butter-cups join the ParentNet pilot, Miss Vallance thinks the solution is simply to switch off the cameras for half an hour.
Parent Hannah Sables, a newsreader for Meridian TV, thinks media coverage of ParentNet has misunder-stood what the cameras are for. It was not a device to stop child abuse or promote child safety.
"I don't see it that way," says Mrs Sables, whose two-year-old son, Tom, attends Buttercups. "It's useful for me to catch up with Tom. If I'm missing him, I'll log in . . . If you are frightened that your child is not in safe hands, you have to question whether the child is best in a nursery. If you are suspicious by nature, you need closed-circuit television."
Would she want to catch up with Tom via the Internet when he is at primary school? Yes, she says. It would be useful for a reception class to check on whether he was socialising with other children and if bullying was going on.
But as the child matures, the idea of cameras in junior and secondary schools seems to take on an ominous complex-ion. Older children might see it as a spy in the classroom.
Cynics might even compare cameras in nurseries with Big Brother. But the cameras are not like closed-circuit television which provides a continuous moving picture. ParentNet takes a picture every few sec-onds and there is no sound-track, so the effect is like watching a silent film in slow-motion. If a child is in distress, as young children often are during a routine day, the parent cannot hear any crying. Even if it is obvious the child is upset, the cameras cannot focus on a particular child.
"A major concern of many parents was that they did not want to see their children upset on the Internet," says Miss Vallance. "Parents say they already have guilty feelings."
Axis Communications, 470 London Road, Slough, Berkshire SL3 8QY. Tel: 01753 714310. Axis web site: http:www.axis.com