Tracking Apps: the Modern Parent’s Tool for Locating Children

By Riana Buchman and Lisi Burciaga, Staff Writers

  While parents lounged on their sofas and tuned in to the latest episodes of “Happy Days” and “Full House” during the late 1970s-1980s, a PSA flashed across screens with a simple question: “It’s 10 P.M. Do you know where your children are?”  

  At that time, most parents did, or if they didn’t, they weren’t too concerned with finding out, according to Cassie Nevins, mother of junior Theresa Nevins.

  “We had it way easier [as kids],” Cassie Nevins said. “You would be out, and your parents wouldn’t know where you were, or [they] wouldn’t even care as long as you came home when you were supposed to be home.”

  A changing of the times has also urged on a change of attitudes, meaning more monitoring thanks to tracking technology’s easy access. Tracking apps have found their way into today’s parenting methods, and Acalanes parents are no exception when it comes to utilizing them.

  “I may peek and see where my family is [with my tracking app], so I can tell if they are on their way driving home or if they’re wherever they’re expected to be,” Acalanes parent Anne Estabrook, mother of sophomore Maddie Fink, said. “You know in Harry Potter how Mrs. Weasley has that clock showing where all of her kids are at any given time? That’s what I feel like this is.”

  However, parents weren’t always in this position. Psychotherapist Jason Brand has his own practice in Berkeley and specially supports families in a world of rapid technological advancement. Brand confirms that a shift in societal standards has prompted the recent surge in tracking app usage among parents.

  “People are scared in ways that are unprecedented,” Brand said. “We feel more of a need to know what our kids are doing and really check in on them in ways that parents in generations past really didn’t worry about so much.”

  What has changed in today’s society isn’t necessarily less trusting parents, but rather an  increased exposure to dangerous realities. According to social studies teacher Joe Schottland, one particular event in 1979 veered parents away from loose upbringings and towards tighter grasps on children’s locations.

  “The first case involving the disappearance of a child resulted in the child’s face being put on milk cartons; it’s a very famous case called Etan Patz,” Schottland said. “I grew up right around that time period, and there’s really kind of a before and after [with that case]. Before [Patz], no parent really even thought that there would be weird people driving around that would pick up a kid and do terrible things to them. That was not a consideration.”

  Now, many are considering watching their kids more than their parents might have been concerned with. In the modern day and age, technology arms today’s generation of parents with a plethora of tools which can be used to track the whereabouts of kids whenever and wherever they go. A survey conducted by an interactive polling website entitled “The Harris Poll” concluded that a third of today’s kids aged 8-12 years old are tracked by their parents via tracking apps.

   Find My Friends, Life360, and MamaBear are a few names among the mix. While some apps may offer battery life readings or monitored driving features, most apps like Life360 pinpoint a child’s position.

  “Life360’s proprietary location-based technology enables over 50 million families to privately see their loved ones’ locations on a map, receive automatic alerts when they arrive or depart designated places like school, home or work, and stay connected with in-app messaging,”  Life360’s Head of Marketing Ashley Ryon said.

  To some, kid tracking entails more than simply knowing where a child is.

  “When I think of kid tracking, I think of the mixture of future technology, but also kind of this overwhelming sense of anxiety about all the things it brings out,” Ian Sherr, executive editor at CNET, said. You’ve got the possibility that the kid could get hurt; you’ve got the possibility that things could go wrong. This technology, oddly enough, reminds you that things can go wrong.”

  Although tracking apps may heighten uneasiness, many parents prefer worrying over hearing too late if a child is in trouble. Somehow, it makes some parents feel more secure. A handful of Acalanes students experience the world of tracking apps firsthand.

  “[My parents] got the app a little before [I started driving] for me and my sister,” sophomore Maddie Fink said. “They want to know where we are because we’ll go to a friend’s house or stuff like that.”

  For a few Acalanes students, getting behind the wheel often prompts tracking app installation as well.

  “[My parents] kind of said, ‘Now that you have your driver’s license, we want to make sure that you’re not doing anything stupid, so we’re going to track you’,” junior Cameron Shapoorian said.

  While such apps allow parents to detect the whereabouts of their children with the click of a button, these technological advancements prove somewhat controversial. A handful of students believe their privacy is violated when parents are able to monitor their every move.

  “I’m not really a fan because it feels kind of intrusive. I want them to trust me to tell them where I am,” sophomore Maddie Fink said. “But at the same time, I understand why they might feel the need to [track me].”

  Some make peace with the idea of being tracked, but claim that overprotectiveness can interfere with coordinating plans, taking away from the spontaneity that accompanies independence. Cv

  “I’m generally okay with [tracking], but sometimes when I’m hanging out with my friends, we switch plans on the fly. It’s kind of hard to communicate with my parents from time to time,” Shapoorian said.

  As communication plays a large role in parenting, the same rings true with tracking apps. When a child does not agree with his or her parent’s methods, then tracking is either not possible or increasingly more difficult to enforce.

  “A lot of the experts I’ve spoken to on these types of things say that there needs to be a two-way street. To make this type of stuff really work, the kids and the parents need to feel comfortable with it,” Sherr said.

  Despite some kid protest, applying tracking technology may seem logical to current parents because many of them did not encounter this concept throughout their preteen and adolescent years. For many of them, a typical day entailed going out early without any communication up until the time they returned home again.

 “I lived in Texas by a beach, and sometimes I would go out in the morning with my friends. I was pretty young, probably eight or 10 years old, and the rule would be you either went home when you were hungry, or you had to come home when the streetlights came on. During the entire day, you might be out of contact with your parents,”  Estabrook said.

  As teens, parents possessed similar freedoms even in potential high risk situations.

  “I grew up in New York City, so I literally took city buses and the subway when I was around 11 or 12,” Schottland said.

  Due to the drastic differences between monitoring children then and now, it is not uncommon for skeptics of tracking apps to deem the technology unneccessary. Although there are many objections, others feel that parents have a right to track their children for numerous reasons.

  “Part of the deal of me getting a phone is my parents being able to track me, so I think that’s just one of the responsibilities that comes with [it],” junior Marianna Florine said.

  Many teens also feel they need the structure that comes with constant supervision in their lives.

  “I really don’t think it’s fair to be like ‘Well children need to have all this freedom’ because if I’m allowed to do what I want, it’s going to get crazy,” Theresa Nevins said. “Obviously, there needs to be rules in place and I need to be held accountable for what I’m saying [in regards to where I am].”

  Many parents argue in name of the apps because they stand as necessary safety measures. As teenhood ushers in new levels of independence, parents often download these apps to maximize supervision.

  “I always make it clear that [my kids] shouldn’t have any expectations about certain privacy rights because we’re responsible for their safety and wellbeing,” Cassandra Nevins said. “You can keep your diary and you can have your stuff with your friends, but if you’re going to drive a car, we need to see where you are and see that you’re safe.”

  Acalanes psychology teacher Lauren Allen also believes tracking app use is justified when the objective ensures a child’s safety.

  “When kids are living at home prior to age 18, parents have the right to do anything within reason to make sure their kids are safe,” Allen said.

  Brand expressed similar opinions due to the occasional poor judgement he observes in teens throughout his line of work.

  “There are certain kids, and especially the kids that I work with in my office, who do really dangerous things,” Brand said. “In a lot of situations, parents do need to be more involved. If it’s an issue of a child’s health and safety, I think parents need to do everything they can to keep that kid safe.”

  However, Allen also sees drawbacks with tracking apps.

  “At the same time, I think [tracking apps] have a huge potential for parents to abuse them. [They can] almost obsess over them by not just using them for safety reasons and checking them too often,” Allen said.

  Brand additionally addresses teenage psychological development, especially that concerning their own protection.

  “For kids, what I worry about is that they don’t develop a sense of safety and security inside themselves,” Brand said.

  Not only does overuse from parents pose an issue, but Brand feels constant supervision can breed paranoia, or in other cases, a false sense of security. Constant paranoia can hinder children’s ability to develop safety in their own terms. In other cases, teens become unhealthily secure under constant supervision, leaving little room for personal development of what is and isn’t safe.

  Creators of many tracking apps support mindfulness of a child’s location. One of today’s popular tracking apps, Life360, was originally created to connect families following Hurricane Katrina, but soon budded into an everyday-use application employed by parents everywhere.

  While the average teen may feel that tracking apps are unnecessary, it’s not uncommon for adolescents to see value in tracking apps once they’ve seen them put to larger significant use.

  “We believe location sharing builds trust in one another,” Ryon said. “Yes, we hear ‘Our kids have [Life360] on their phones because I pay the phone bills,’ but we also hear ‘My mom asked me to install Life360, but after my sister got in a car accident, I’m totally okay with them knowing where I am and that I’m safe.’”

  Yet, despite understanding the potential safety benefits that come with tracking, in the end, many teens still advocate against the technology.

  “I would prefer not to have [the tracking app] and just have my parents ask, ‘Where are you now’,” Fink said.

  Shapoorian’s stance is similar to Fink’s.

  “I haven’t really done anything yet that [my parents] wouldn’t approve of, so I would expect them to kind of trust me a bit more than they have been,” Shapoorian said.

  Many agree use of a tracking app should not come from parents without a motive.

  “If you do not trust your kid that much so you track their phone, there is obviously a problem. I think everyone deserves their privacy, so I do not think it is right,” freshman Maryam Sharaf said.

  However, Brand feels the key to utilizing tracking apps correctly, and with the least amount of protest from those being tracked, is balance.

  “Let’s say that you’re going out for the first time past 11 o’clock on your own, and your parents say, ‘I want to check in on you, and if I send you a text and don’t hear back, then I’m going to use Find My iPhone to find out exactly where you are.’ That seems reasonable to me,” Brand said.

  Brand feels a parent’s duty is to gauge the level of supervision that they see fit for their child based off the teen’s track record.

  “If kids can show that they know how to be safe… then I think the responsibility falls in the parents’ lap to learn to trust their kid better and learn how to give them freedom without so much anxiety,” Brand said.

  While the controversy called by the role of technology in today’s parenting methods definitely wasn’t an issue in the past, its increasing popularity suggests that kid tracking will remain relevant for many generations of parents and kids to come.

  “This [technology] is going to stick around; I don’t think it’s going anywhere,” Brand said. “It’s only going to play a bigger role in our [future] lives for better or for worse.”

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