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Digitally Tracking Your Kids: Sensible or Stalkerish?

We love our kids so intensely don’t we? And as they get older and more independent, it can feel like they’re slipping out of our grasp, into the great unknown. I know that feeling all too well since my first-born has turned 12 and gone to ‘big school’. Although he was undoubtedly ready for this change, I was not. Even knowing that his school is five minutes walk up a straight road, I still feel pretty anxious until I see him coming up the path, later than I’d like him to be, usually soaked in mud but grinning his gorgeous grin so I can’t even be angry.

He has an iPhone and is usually pretty good at answering it when I ring him, but recently I’ve been thinking about going down the route of putting a tracker on his phone so that I can see exactly where he is. It’s nothing to do with a lack of trust, it simply feels like an extra layer of security, just in case the worst was ever to happen. It’s totally commonplace nowadays I think… most of my friends track not just their kids but their husbands!

Life 360, the worlds leading family safety app is used by 32 million people in 140 different countries.But the fact everyone is doing it doesn’t stop me feeling just the slightest bit uncomfortable about it. Parental surveillance is on the rise there’s no doubt about that; but what implications does it have, if any, for the child?

As with all parenting issues, the outcome of using these apps will differ depending on the pre-existing relationship between the parent and child. If the child knows the parent is genuinely using tracking apps purely for security and peace of mind, they may be much more inclined to go along with it. However if for example, a teenager already feels stifled by (in their view) overprotective parents, the use of these apps suddenly can feel like a huge loss of liberty at a time when they’re developing and changing and becoming more autonomous. Anecdotally, lots of parents I’ve spoken to though tell me that tracking apps have actually improved their relationship with their teens. The fact that they can just look at a phone screen and instantly know their whereabouts means they don’t have to pester them by constantly calling or texting them.

But is there a darker side to these apps? There have been several confirmed security breaches on major tracking apps where children’s data has been intercepted by predatory cyber criminals. There have been cases of malicious links finding their way onto these apps as well as data (both of the parent and the child) being sold to third party companies. The fact that lots of apps allow parents to intercept their children’s messages feels a little dystopian to me. I’m fine with helicopter parenting… it’s when it crosses the line to become an invasion of privacy that the hairs on my arms start to prickle.

Back in the good old days, when I was a kid, our parents had none of these cyber security tactics at their disposal. We were given strict instructions about how far we could venture from the front door, who we could be out and about with, and what time we had to be home. And I think I can confidently say on behalf of my generation that we did not adhere too strictly to those rules most of the time. I vividly remember my mother standing at the end of the street in her slippers screaming for me and my brother to come back home, usually a good 15 minutes after our curfew. Was that stressful for her? Quite possibly. Would we have been genuinely safer if we’d been being tracked? I’m not sure.

In an article for BBC Worklife, Sonia Livingstone, a professor in the department of media and communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science,says she believes there is in fact “zero evidence that any of these apps keep children safer”. "I’ve never seen any and I look at all the evidence,” she says. She also goes on to raise some very interesting points about how we know very little about the long term developmental effects of adolescents knowing their every move is being watchedby their parents. She has grave concerns their development of independent life skills could be stunted and that there could be “unintented but damaging consequences” for the parent-child relationship.

There is of course the flipside to this, in that there have been some high profile cases in the United Statesof parents successfully using tracking apps to find children who’ve had accidents or been abducted. Reading stories like this, I do wonder what might’ve happened to these teenagers if the events had happened back in the 90’s, a time when I was largely uncontactable for my poor worried mother.

Since they’re the subject of the trackers, it seems hugely important to know how their use make kids feel… safer? Or spied on? A small study in the Netherlands found that teenagers who were monitored became more secretive and determined to hide things from their parents. Surely the exact opposite of what a healthy functional family wants to achieve.

Again, it will differ from child to child, but in her BBC article Professor Sonia Livingstone asserts that App makers and advertisers may be keen to make parents believe getting an app is an act of parental love, but "the most important thing for development is that the child learns to trust the parent and the parents the child”. Relying on an app to find out where a child is or what they are looking at online, particularly without their knowledge, can seriously undermine that trust, she says, which might lead children to make riskier choices or get clever about evading detection. As well as the right to be safe, children do also have a right to privacy, particularly as they get older, says Livingstone.

As with all the big issues that throw themselves to the forefront in the teenage years, putting the time in to ensure your child feels loved, secure and trusted to make sensible decisions will only help them to become more resilient, thoughtful adults. Although I’m certainly not ruling out using these tracking apps if I felt they might genuinely keep my kids safer, I will certainly weigh up the risk vs the reward. And I’ll have an open conversation with my kids about how it affects their own personal boundaries. In Livingstones sage words, “Children have always had times in which they were unobserved and playing outside and generally at risk and coping. We have a crisis in mental health, so it may all be linked that they’re not developing those everyday habits of resilience. But there are some huge unknowns: we have no idea really what it is to grow up when you are constantly observed.”


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