Does tracking our kids’ every move make them safer?

By Anne Collier

Reflecting on a cellphone app developer’s claim, I’m thinking that tracking our kids’ movements, moment by moment, isn’t the best way to enhance “family awareness.” Those are the words of Chris Hull, CEO of the company that developed the Life360 tracking app, in an interview for Time. Is that “awareness” as in “surveillance”? Oddly, Time interpreted Hull’s reference to family awareness as “familial communication,” a stretch the app marketer doesn’t even make.

Here’s what Canada’s premier media-literacy organization, in Ottawa, found in its research about digital-age “family awareness”:

“The parents we spoke with were beleaguered by fear of danger and exhausted from the burden of constant vigilance. Although the exact nature of [the] danger is poorly defined, many parents told us that surveillance is now equated with good parenting, and that the days of trusting their children and providing them with space to explore the world and make mistakes are long gone” (linked to here). I so agree with’s co-director Jane Tallim that surveillance “runs counter to the mutual trust, confidence and communication between parents and their kids that is so essential to helping children develop the skills they need for digital life.” That’s the foundation for safety that lasts way beyond childhood.

What about a call or text?

Sure there are times, such as after a natural disaster (Life360’s developers invoke Hurricane Katrina in their corporate story) or if someone’s being stalked, when family members need to keep track of each other. But most of the time is it not enough to call or text? What kind of message are we sending our kids when tracking their every move? How do they respond?

Actually, MediaSmarts found that constant monitoring can have the opposite effect parents are seeking: “The teenagers who did share the details of their lives with their parents were the ones who were not routinely monitored. Trust in this case was mutual,” indicating that “monitoring alone may work against open family dialogue.” So it’s a balance we need to strike. I love the way media professor and parent Henry Jenkins puts it: We need to watch their backs not look over their shoulders.

Finding the right balance is never easy, but it’s good to know that constant tracking hardly helps us find and maintain it. And if the motivation is fear, what impact does that have? It could make a child more fearful or send the message that it’s ok to let fear rule. It could also reduce our credibility and parent-child communication (if the child feels the fear is irrelevant or overwrought) and send a kid into stealth mode or into seeking workarounds, which is all too easy online and with portable, pocket-size devices. And of course delivers exactly what marketers of surveillance tools are looking for: a bigger market.

Software or parenting?

The Time article lists half a dozen other child-tracking apps for parents who prefer constant silent tracking to giving their kid a call or tapping out a quick text. Some also record every text a child types or just lock a kid’s phone down so he or she can’t use it.

A newer app not listed in the Time article – MMGuardian – can lock a kid’s phone when it senses that child and phone are moving faster than 10 miles per hour, a way to ensure teens aren’t texting while driving. That’s fine, but it can also be a little clumsy, because the feature could lock a kid’s phone when he or she is a passenger in a car someone else is driving too – even a parent. Which means the parent should pull over to use her phone to unlock the kid’s! Kind of kidding, but there are good features in MMGuardian, including the one that turns off phones at bedtime so kids get their sleep and the ability to locate a lost phone and lock it so no one else can use it. Other features coming soon to MMGuardian (only on Android phones for now) will allow parents to manage kids’ contact list and detect what apps they’ve downloaded.

But I still maintain that most parents don’t really need software to parent.

Related links

* Anyway, as author and parent Michael Levin points out in the Huffington Post, what kids are doing online is mostly good.
* In her very thoughtful, thorough piece on digital parenting aids, my wise friend Amy Jussel over at quotes Booker T. Washington: “Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him.” An important caveat from her: “Parents REALLY need to be brutally honest with themselves about their own motivations and expectations using LBS[location-based services]-apps. Family relationship dynamics run the gamut, and those trying to assuage their own fear, angst, or parenting insecurities need to be aware apps like these can CREATE them as well.”
* Think about tracking in the context of (acting from or using fear in) parenting: A research paper from the University of Toronto’s Center for Health Promotion that tells when fear does and doesn’t change behavior (i.e., increase safety). Very basically, a fear appeal works when 2 things are present: relevance and efficacy (when the listener sees its relevance to him personally and feels able to do something about it). When those are not present, he moves from “danger control” (behavior change) to “fear control”: denying he’s at risk; avoiding or mocking the message; or becoming angry at the source of the message (e.g., a parent) or the issue. This is why it’s so important that we try to understand or be informed about our children’s experiences with tech (relevance) and give them a sense of agency and efficacy (see this about that). [Thanks to my co-director Larry Magid for pointing this paper out in this talk.]
* “What does ‘safe’ really look like in a digital age?”
* “What’s wrong with Net safety ed … and what we can do about it”
* My thanks to Amy Jussel of for pointing the Time piece out – I’ll add a link here as soon as she posts about this.

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