Thanks to my ConnectSafely.org co-director Anne Collier for her thoughtful post about cell phone tracking that concludes “most parents don’t really need software to parent.” I of course agree. What she said about tracking apps, tracks (no pun intended) what I’ve long said about content filtering. The best filter isn’t the one on the device, but the one that runs between the child’s ears. Still, I think a case can be made for using software to check in on your kids’ location as a way to reassure worried parents and free kids from having to call or text home to let mom and dad know they’re OK.
Anne linked to an article in Time that briefly describes some of the tracking programs available, in its attempt to answer the question of whether parents should use smartphones to track their kids. Time reports that “Some 20 million people have already downloaded Life360, a location app that allows family members to alert one another when they’ve arrived at various spots and to follow one another’s movements with by-the-minute updates.” Another product covered in the overview is SMS Tracker that allows parents to see all incoming and outgoing texts, call logs and photos.
While there may be some extreme cases where monitoring every text and phone call makes sense for parents of high-risk kids, I don’t generally recommend products that spy on kids’ texts, phone calls or web surfing. I’m OK with programs that alert parents if their kids do something potentially dangerous, but tracking their every online move is not only overly invasive but leads to too much information. When my kids were young, we wanted to know who they were hanging out with, but we didn’t plant a device on them to record conversations with their friends.
I actually think there is a justification for location tracking as long as it’s used for reassurance as opposed to spying. It can even be used to give family members a bit more freedom as a substitute for having them always having to call in or ask permission to go from place to place. And I don’t think it should necessarily be limited to kids. They can also be reassuring when used voluntarily by adult family members as well.
Confessions of a worried parent
Smartphone tracking apps weren’t available when my kids (now 26 and 28) were young, but if they were, I think we might have used them. I wouldn’t use a program to track my kid’s every move but if they were out late at night and I couldn’t reach them, I might use the program just to make sure they’re OK. If I saw they were at a friend’s house or perhaps a local eatery, I could relax and stop worrying.
When my son was in high school, he had a debit card that enabled me to track his spending online. One night my wife and I were out of town and he was staying with a friend. The friend’s parent called me to ask if I knew where their son and my son were and of course I didn’t. I then logged into his debit account and saw that he bought a meal at a local restaurant just a few minutes earlier, which reassured me and his friend’s parents that they weren’t lying it a ditch somewhere.
Even now, I sometimes use Glympse to reassure family members of my location. Gympse is a free smartphone apps that allows you to share your location with anyone for up to 4 hours (as a privacy and anti-stalking measure it can’t be set to permanently track anyone). If you’re in a car, it shows your movement and speed on a map (though this can be disabled). One day when my son was on a long drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco, he voluntarily let me track him so I didn’t have to worry if he was OK. I’ve also used Apple’s Find My Phone app to reassure myself that family members are OK when they’re out late at night.
Conversation is the key
The key to using these apps successfully is getting everyone to agree. If you’re a worried parent who wants to be able to know where your kids are, ask them if they’re willing to let you track their location in exchange for greater freedom. Tell them that they don’t have to call or text-in as often or put up with you’re bugging them and consider giving them some additional freedoms in exchange for them giving you some additional peace of mind.