Being a teenager is hard. Your hormones and emotions are all over the place, and you’re often nagged by an inexplicable, unrelenting desire to make horrible decisions. Your skin sucks and navigating school is confusing (dating even more so)—plus, your parents never leave you alone.
A term was even coined back in the late ’60s to describe the folks who seem to hover over their child’s every move—helicopter parent—but the phrase really took off in the early aughts. Black Mirror decided to take it literally, of course. Season 4 premieres December 29 on Netflix, and its Jodie Foster-directed episode “Arkangel” explores what happens when helicopter parenting meets surveillance tech. *Spoiler alert* it’s not pretty, and we get to see all the gory details as the complicated mother-daughter dynamic between overprotective Marie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and her teen Sara (Brenna Harding) breaks down.
We watch as a well-intentioned Marie decides to microchip her toddler Sara with a surveillance device, effectively allowing Marie to see the world through her daughter’s eyes and “block” anything unsavoury in the process. It starts off small—a barking dog becomes a blur—but then it ramps up, to devastating results. The episode takes us through major milestones in Sara’s life, all the way up to her high school years. She’s still figuring out who she is, and doing dumb shit along the way (didn’t we all?), only unbeknownst to Sara, she’s taking her mom right along with her for the ride.
Basically, this spyware takes classic snooping and turns it totally creepy—only it’s not someone reading your diary, it’s way, way worse. But the scariest part isn’t the ending (although, trust, it is brutal), it’s the fact that this kind of tech doesn’t really seem like a stretch from what’s already happening today. I’d even venture to say that “Arkangel” is only a minor dramatization of what it’s like to grow up with the social media that tracks us now.
Hear me out. I’m a mid-’90s baby, so the bulk of my childhood was still relatively lacklustre in the tech department. When I was a kid, my family and I could use either the bulky desktop computer or the house phone—never both at once or the person on the phone would hear a horrible screeching noise. I remember elevating the act of burning CDs for my Walkman to an art form. But when I entered high school, things changed.
First, I got a cell phone. It started as a way for my parents to keep track of me, but it evolved into so much more. Instant-messaging services kept me and my friends constantly connected, and we shared up-to-the-minute updates as though we were royalty. Blackberry Messenger statuses became a way to measure social rank: the more people you were hanging out with, the more you could list in your status, and voilà, the cooler you became.
The amount my popularity depended upon social media only skyrocketed from there. The year I turned 16, my group of friends started experimenting with drinking, as most high schoolers do. Websites like Facebook and Instagram were suddenly on the scene, begging me to post evidence of my underage escapades. Then my parents joined the platforms, and I noticed them surveying my pages. They were able to keep close tabs on what I would do when I left the house.
I understand why they were interested in my social media. Like Sara’s mom, they wanted me to stay safe, and they felt an obligation to teach me when I was doing something wrong—proof of which they could now easily find just a click away. But at what point should a teenager figure stuff out for themselves? It started to make me angry that my parents could always know where I was or what I was doing; I felt like I had no independence at a time when all I wanted was to figure out how to be my own person.
Suddenly, I longed for the privacy of my early childhood. I didn’t want the responsibility that came with access to the internet and all the connection it offered. I also wished that what I did in my spare time didn’t need to be monitored in such a way that required so much filtering: to be perceived as popular and cool enough to my friends, but also mature and smart enough to my parents. The practice of monitoring what I posted (and what others posted about me) made me feel at odds with the person I was and the one I was becoming, and I honestly believe it made the experience of growing up much more difficult.
Thankfully, I could control how I used various platforms. While it could be exhausting at times, I managed to experiment mostly in secret while still maintaining an online persona that kept my parents happy.
“Arkangel” shows us what could happen if we didn’t have that control. And in Black Mirror’s world, it totally stunted Sara’s growth. Marie’s constant monitoring, and the secretive way she went about doing it, made Sara suspicious of the one person she should trust most in the world—her parent—and ultimately had a devastating effect on their relationship.
Most of the time, I walk away from watching an episode of Black Mirror thinking that, though the moral of the story is sound, the consequences of the invasive technology are hyperbolic and unrealistic. But after “Arkangel,” I felt like I understood Sara’s plight. Monitoring should have its limits. It’s complicated, both as a parent and as a teen, to navigate life with so much sophisticated tech at your fingertips.
Bottom line: if “Arkangel” is a omen of what’s to come, we should be very, very afraid.
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