A few years ago, one of my sisters-in-law started worrying big time about her teenage daughter. What she was doing after school? Where was she spending her time? The girl – my niece — was a straight-A student, involved in all kinds of legitimate extra-curricular activities, with no hints of a drug or alcohol problem. Even so, her mom was worried enough to put a tracking app on the kid’s phone.
At first, this made my sister-in-law “feel better.” Then the bubble burst. She recalls: “I found out that she was someplace that she said she wasn’t. I went out in the middle of the night and found her barefoot in the middle of the street with some friends.” Things went swiftly downhill for mother and daughter after that.
With tweens and teens newly back to school, heading into a new grade, it’s natural that so many want to spread their wings, fly a little more independently. And with 73% of teens having their own smartphones now, according to a 2015 Pew study, more and more of their parents are facing the question: To spy or not to spy?
Alas for parents, this is more complicated than yes or no, says Ana Homayoun, founder of Green Ivy Educational Consulting and author of several books on parenting, including the forthcoming Social Media Wellness. “As with many things involving social media and technology, I believe much of it comes down to approach. As a parent, why are you feeling the need to use tech tracking devices?”
You may be concerned about their safety. A potential kidnapping. Getting lost at a theme park. Once behind the wheel of a car, do you want to monitor their location or track their driving habits? It turns out tracking apps can be very useful to parents in this regard. For instance, eZoom can provide automobile speed alerts, while Traveler’s IntelliDrive provides the exact location of a car at all times. (Note: These are well known apps but not personally road tested.)
Still, the $64,000 question for many other parents is this: Do you want to use a tracking device because you don’t trust your children?
Homayoun has counseled many parents and their kids about this. “I've found teens are more receptive and understanding to the use of tech tracking apps when it is included as part of a family use agreement to promote safety rather than potential reprisal and punishment,” she told me. I couldn’t agree more.
Mark Bell, and IT executive and father of a teenage girl, described to me the ground rules he has established with his daughter—a series of compromises that let the teen have some freedom while keeping the dad in the loop.
“We don’t have software or apps that track activities, but we do put up some ‘digital guardrails’ that must be steered between in exchange for us providing a smartphone,” he said. For example, his daughter must friend him on social media accounts so that he can review posts; must share all passcodes so he can see what apps have been installed; and must turn over the device at bedtime to enforce a break from the internet. All very wise, dad.
When you’re trying to build trust, you need to create an environment that fosters it. While I know some will disagree, I think that usually rules out parents putting anyhidden apps on a teen’s phone. “Parents must be upfront about how and when they’ll be supervising their children,” said Dr. Paul Weigle, a psychiatrist who is also co-chair of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s media committee. If they’re not open about it, he warns, it can “significantly damage the parent/child relationship.”
“In the end, you really want to teach your children to take care of themselves,” Homayoun explained. Weigle agreed: “The goal is to have a child who is self-monitoring and self-functioning.”
Not surprisingly, that’s easier said than done. Weigle, who has a 13-year-old son, said he and his wife bought the boy an older smart phone on his last birthday, pre-loading it with apps they approved of. No data plan, meaning no Internet access. No games. And for now, no tracking apps. But Weigle is closely monitoring his son’s use, with the kid’s consent.
My sister-in-law says that, looking back, she would have done things differently. “It was about my anxiety,” she says. “I wish I’d told my daughter that I had downloaded the app to her phone. It was really a breach of my trust in her—and of her privacy.”
· As soon as your child has a smartphone, be prepared to discuss some ground rules (for instance, no sexting or cyberbullying) and clarify when they can use it and when they can’t (say, during meal times or in bed).
· Sit down and talk with your son or daughter about exactly why you’re worried for their safety, using concrete examples, and be clear about how you will be supervising them (shared passwords, tracking apps, for example).
· Be sure to check the privacy policies of any tracking apps you use. You don’t want to inadvertently share your kid’s data with a third party or be helping others find out where they are.
· Some young people like knowing they're being tracked, if only because it gives them an excuse not to succumb to peer pressure.
“It’s all about how you collaborate with your child,” says my now wiser sister-in-law. “If they’re opposed to a tracking app on their phone, then they need to come up with other ways to be held responsible and accountable—like calling home or having curfews.” One thing’s for sure: There’s a thin line between being a smart parent and an untrusting one.
Agree or disagree with my advice? Let me know in the comments section below.
USA TODAY columnist Steven Petrow offers advice about living in the Digital Age. Submit your question to Steven at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow Steven on Twitter: @StevenPetrow. Or like him on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow.