Go ahead and judge me: I leave the kids at home alone sometimes. Not long stretches, and not so I can go out to Broken Spoke and work on my electric slide. But there are plenty of days when the kids clock some fraction of an hour watching Phineas and Ferb before either my wife or I get home from work. They are nine and six years old.
I hasten to point out that we live on the gated grounds of a boarding school, where my wife works. Her office is only steps away from the house. And the kids check in with her at her office before heading home. But they are home alone, nonetheless.
I have spent many a commute imagining all the things that could go wrong in just those few minutes, my foot weighing heavier and heavier on the accelerator. Amazing I haven’t rung up several speeding tickets while lost in a reverie of mayhem.
My anxiety was such that when I saw a review of a thing called a DropCam over on GeekDad, I about climbed through the internet into the DropCam offices. They were kind enough to recognize my desperation and to send me a camera to try.
Simply put, a DropCam is a surveillance camera that uses your wireless network to send video of your home to the web or to your iPhone. If the word “surveillance” makes you nervous and you are inclined to substitute “nannycam,” this may not be the device for you.
But it has brought me significant peace of mind.
The setup is pretty idiot-proof and the instructions fit on an index card. Hook the camera (just a bit smaller than a deck of cards) to your router, set up an account and activate the camera, mount the camera. Done. The camera comes with a couple of attachments that allow you to stash this little sucker just about anywhere (I just plopped mine down on top of the TV) but it does need to be plugged in to a power source. The basic DropCam setup costs $199, the DropCam Echo unit that I tested also included sound and runs $279.
The web interface is nice, but the iPhone app is nothing short of amazing. Using your mobile, you can check in on your kids from anywhere (traffic lights). If your home internet is relatively stable, you can depend on getting a clear feed just about anywhere your phone functions. The picture and sound (on the upgraded model) were clear and stable. I have experienced almost no stopping or skipping on the feed.
The basic streaming service is free, but for a monthly fee, you can record the video on an endless one week ($8.95), or one month ($24.95) loop. You can also export clips from the recorded footage. This was not an option I was interested in, but the camera came with a two-week trial of these features. The system has a motion sensor, which places a tag on a timeline each time someone passes in front of the camera. I used this feature to discover that my son was sneaking back into our house during the school day to pick off his mom’s Diet Coke.
Which served to re-enforce my feeling that I did not want the recording feature.
The point of the camera in our house is to keep the kids safe, not to bust them for bad behavior. Besides, the thought of preserving unguarded moments of domestic life creeped me out a bit. Not that the folks at DropCam didn’t offer adequate assurances about the security of the feed — data is encrypted before it leaves the camera, their servers are secure. Nonetheless, I still wish the thing had an on/off switch. The only way to deactivate the camera is to unplug it.
How to talk to the kids about it? I was completely up front. I explained why I wanted the camera, and what I would use it for. My daughter had lots of questions that contained more than a kernel of hostility. Even at 9, a kid knows that they might rather not have dad watching all the time.
Just a few weeks later, the camera has faded from their awareness. I continue to remind them that I’ll be keeping an eye on them — just to keep it fresh in their minds and perhaps encourage better behavior. It is now part of my routine to check in on them daily at about the time they get home from school.
It’s easy to imagine this technology being used in inadvisable ways (who needs babysitters!), and there are lots of implications for your family that have to be discussed, but there are also innumerable ways this technology can be used to improve the safety and security in the house.