#parent | #kids | Is using tracking apps for our children protective or suffocating? | Sarah Ayoub

It was the year 2000 and I was in my early teens when I joined my friends to watch a movie for someone’s birthday. We told our parents we’d call from the cinema pay phone “when we were done”. When the movie finished, I confidently joined the group to have some cake at the cafe down the street.

My mother, in a way I now understand as a mother myself, had simply not absorbed this final point, and arrived to collect me at the film’s completion, some minutes after I had already left for the cafe. When I finally returned to the pick-up point 45 minutes later, I had found her wailing, ethnic mum-style, on the steps of the cinema, surrounded by my three bewildered younger siblings, a frazzled staff member and the manager, who thought he had a missing child’s case on his hands.

I will never forget how much trouble I got in that day. I was savaged by her words: for letting her think that I had vanished, for “taking advantage” of freedoms she’d never herself had, for not calling her to tell her that we were adding more to our plans. In my shame and embarrassment in the days afterwards, I mulled over how I might have evaded my dressing-down if communication between us had been easier. I was given a mobile phone just days later.

Today, mobile phones are infinitely more common, and more recently tracking apps afford the people who use them the ability to monitor the whereabouts of their family and friends, in various ways and under a multitude of circumstances.

So what are they and how are they used?

According to psychologist and cyber-psychology researcher Jocelyn Brewer, parents use tracking apps “as an extra layer of support” to ease their own anxieties around their children’s whereabouts and safety.

“Apps allow parents to contact children to provide reminders and allow children to update their parents on how many minutes late they are running or where they are parked,” she explains. “Apps help track their movements in the event they don’t show up where and when expected.”

Some apps even often offer crash detection, roadside assistance, chat functions, and notifications of traffic issues and delays.

But Brewer says that they should be used with some consideration, depending on the age of the child and any personal situations.

“Some young people have their own anxiety about separating from parents, that these [apps] attempt to address,” Brewer points out. “But this brings up other issues around simply creating further dependence on reaching out to parents. They can also become a tracking and tracing device, and kids can feel overly monitored, even stalked. This depends on their age, as often older kids are more independent and able to handle different situations so feel less like they need these tools.”

So how can parents use these apps, while still building trust with their kids?

Brewer says open and honest conversations around their use should “start early and be revisited often”, depending on the child’s age and the circumstances in which they are used.

“We want young people to feel supported to build skills of everyday living and independence to make decision and navigate situations at a developmentally appropriate level,” she says. “Being tracked sometimes causes a lack of independence and ability to deal with small amounts of the unknown. It means sharing new plans when [original] plans change at the last minute, rather than working out contingencies.”

Emily*, a Melbourne mother of four children (aged 18, 16, 13 and 8) says she and her husband started using a family tracking app on a friend’s recommendation after much conversation with their children. They’ve found it a beneficial way to navigate their teenagers’ growing independence as they travel to the city with friends, walk their dog alone, or catch public transport.

“They don’t have any strong feelings about the app, they know it’s part of a compromise,” she says. “They understand it’s our job as parents to protect them, but that this app will help build their confidence and independence, while giving us peace of mind.”

Emily says it’s already come in handy: on one occasion, her son was returning from a trip to the city with friends when his train had to make an emergency stop, and Emily was able to guide him to a bus stop in an area he did not know so he could make it back home. On another, her daughter and her friends felt afraid in the presence of a disruptive man on a train, and she was able to pick them up because she could see exactly where they were when they quickly disembarked.

While researching this column, I discovered that a number of my own friends and acquaintances – unbeknown to me – had used similar apps themselves, some with a warning that parents ought to consider which they choose carefully, with anecdotes of other children leaving their phones at friends’ houses to head out on their own.

“There are many ways that young people seek to have privacy, independence and test boundaries,” Brewer says. “I find often kids who get up to tricks like this have ruptured relationships with their parents where it becomes a bit of a Catch 22 – the trust is broken due to certain behaviours, parents don’t rebuild that trust or address the underlying reasons why the kids push boundaries, so kids feel the only way they can do what they want is via sneaky business.”

Emily has found that being upfront with her kids – about the ways she realistically uses the app and the fact that it will be used less and less as they get older – has been valuable in building trust.

“I’ve reiterated numerous times that I’m not using it to spy, but to help them if they get into trouble or [get] lost,” she says. “I really like the app, it tells me how much phone battery they have, when they arrive, how long they’ve been there, even what speed the bus is doing. I’m not constantly checking it when they’re out, only to see if they’ve arrived at their destination, or if it’s getting closer to their time to be home. I need them to know I trust them and they can trust me too, that I’m protective but not suffocating.”

But Brewer points out that we often “lament the tech-saturated world we are in when it comes to kids’ use of screens and long for the nostalgic sense of our childhoods” while utilising more devices than ever.

Perhaps it’s all about balance. I still cringe when I think about my public embarrassment 20-odd years ago, and maybe it wouldn’t have been the worst thing to be tracked to ease my mother’s mind, so that I could have my cake, and eat it too.

*Name has been changed

Sarah Ayoub is a journalist, academic and author of books for young adults and children

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