The year was 2010, one year before Apple’s ‘Find My Friends’ feature was released. My son was in the tenth grade and had just started driving. So, of course, I was tracking him. We used the only available method, AT&T’s FamilyMap, which allowed me to track the phones of those on my family phone plan. It was brand new technology, and I didn’t yet know if GPS tracking of cell phones was accurate.
One weekend, my son stayed home while I took his sister to her volleyball tournament out of town. He was to stay with his best friend, whose father, Jeff, was a close friend. The boys had planned to attend their friend Sierra’s birthday party on Saturday night. It sounded innocent enough. I assumed they would be at Sierra’s house and her parents would be nearby. I pictured stacks of pizza boxes and Sierra’s parents continually asking for the music to be turned down.
Sometime after my bedtime and before the hour at which I would panic if my phone rang, my phone rang. In the hotel room bed, my daughter asleep beside me, I listened as Jeff asked me to “check that map thing you have on your phone.” He explained that the boys had called to report that they had arrived at Sierra’s party, but something wasn’t sitting right with him. He wanted me to check and see where my son’s phone was pinging from.
I opened the app and clicked on my son’s phone number. A little blue dot popped up on the map in the middle of what appeared to be a cow pasture near the edge of the county, out in the middle of nowhere. Far from our neighborhood. Far from anyone’s neighborhood.
Naturally my mind went to the worst possible scenarios: His car flipped in a ditch on a country road, run off course while racing the town bully. His body in a downtown alley, a carjacker having tossed his phone out the window into a crop of spinach on his way out of town. But, hey, wait a minute, breathe…it’s the technology. It cannot be accurate.
“I don’t know, Jeff,” I whispered, “Why would the boys be way out there? It must be giving a faulty reading.” We decided that it must be off due to my being far from home. Surely the distance messed up the accuracy of the GPS. Yeah, OK, sounds good.
I tossed around until I received a text from Jeff saying the boys had arrived back at his house, past curfew, but alive and well.
On Monday, once the kids left for school, I set out on a little investigation. I had saved the location of my son’s phone from Saturday night. I drove out of town and into the country, guided by the little blue dot on FamilyMap. Sure enough, I was soon in the midst of farmland, surrounded by cow pastures and cropland. I pulled up to the intersection that matched the location of the blue dot, thinking there was no way this was correct.
Then, I looked out my window towards the pasture on the other side of the road. There, in the grass, were a half dozen red Solo cups. I got out of the car and walked over to inspect something else lying in the grass, wet with dew. It was a piece of pink poster board, on which someone had stenciled, in glittery ink, “Happy Birthday Sierra!”
Well, they hadn’t lied.
Ten years later, my son lives across the country, successfully adulting. I quit tracking him after high school, when he went away to college. The idea of peeking to see where my college student was at various times of the day or night was a little frightening. Did I really need to know if he was in class, at the gym, in a bar, or on a road trip? I decided to trust that he would make good decisions (ha!) Also, he had a girlfriend all through college, so keeping track of him became her job. God bless her!
My daughter was another story. I tracked her since she started driving and still do so to this day. When she started college, I occasionally checked to make sure she got home after a night out, but I quickly learned the danger of doing this when she stayed overnight with friends instead of going home. If you enjoy spending hours of catastrophic thinking until your daughter wakes up and charges her phone, go for it. Me? I adopted a strict need-to-know strategy.
My daughter also tracks me, for the same reason I track her; we are two single women living alone in big cities. But we are both grown women and agree to allow each other this privilege. My kids grew up on the cusp of this technology. We were the first to tread this ground. The next generation might never know a difference. They are toddling around right now with cameras all around them: watching them sleep (and even monitoring their heart rates,) watching them with their sitters, and, in some preschools, broadcasting their first learning experiences via webcams.
Keeping an eye on a small child, to protect those who cannot yet speak for themselves, or to avoid the tragedy of an abduction or lost child, is certainly understandable and reasonable, but at what age should you stop tracking your child’s whereabouts?
Research shows that most parents are more likely to track their teens’ internet usage and social media profiles than their location. Pew Research Center reported in 2016 that only 16% of parents of 13- to 17-year-olds tracked their teens location. Psychologists say It’s probably a good thing that number isn’t higher.
In a 2018 New York Times article, Psychologist Lisa Damour, author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood and Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, said that tracking location can damage your connection with your teen, causing resentment and damaging their trust in you.
Another, bigger, issue is that tracking undermines your teen’s ability to build trust in themselves. Teenagers need to learn to navigate their way in the world.
“As a psychologist, I also worry that location tracking can confuse the question of who is mainly responsible for the safety of the roaming adolescent — the parent or the teenager?” Damour said.
If you do decide to track your teenager’s location, Andy Earle, host of the Talking to Teens Podcast offers these strategies for success.
1. Make sure your teen is aware you are tracking them. Keeping it a secret is dangerous and can destroy your teen’s trust in you if they find out. Tracking should be about safety and not about trust.
2. Only check his or her location when you have a good reason. If they are late for curfew, don’t show up at school, or driving alone for the first time, you have good reason to make sure they are safe, but don’t check up on them constantly out of curiosity.
3. Turn off tracking when it’s not needed. To help you keep from over-checking, only turn tracking on when your teen is in a situation where you reasonably need to track him or her, such as the first time they drive out of town.
4. Don’t let tracking be a substitute for good communication. Give your teen the opportunity to share his or her life with you as they choose. If you already know where they have been hanging out, you may miss out on opportunities for discovery together.