#parent | #kids | The Case Against Spying on Your Kids With Apps

Apps like Life360 promise peace of mind, but at what cost?

Credit: PredragImages/Getty Images

A user sought advice on Reddit’s “Am I the Asshole?” board: Were they wrong for refusing to comply with their parents’ demand that they install a location tracker on their phone?

“For a few years, I’ve been refusing to put a tracking app called Life360 on my phone, and my parents have grudgingly agreed since I’m always at home,” wrote the user in a now-deleted post.

The issue of parents using technology to spy on their teens is a growing issue: A majority of parents snoop on their kids’ digital lives in some way, according to the Pew Research Center. Apps like Life360 have become such a thorn in adolescents’ sides that they’re taking their issues to TikTok, offering advice on how to bypass the app’s surveillance and generally complaining and letting off steam. But by installing parental control apps on their kids’ phones, parents could be damaging their child’s trust in and relationship with the parent. They’re potentially hurting the child’s ability to navigate risk down the line. Ultimately, these apps may be more trouble than they’re worth.

They’re certainly not making the kids happy. Most of the Redditors agreed with the original poster: They were not, in fact, an asshole for refusing to install a location-tracking app on their phone. Many users posted about their own experiences dealing with privacy-invading parental controls. “As a person who still has that app on her phone despite being in college and 19 and on track to graduate early, don’t let it happen — it will never go away,” wrote one Redditor. “One of my friends (21f) is in this predicament with the caveat of parents defunding college if the app is deleted or she is caught not at her house after ‘curfew,’” wrote another.

One comment mentioned how frequent complaints about parents’ overzealous Life360 use appeared on the subreddit, an observation that is borne out by evidence. According to Pew, as of 2016 — the latest date for which they have relevant data on the topic — 61% of parents have checked their child’s online browser history, 48% have looked through their call records or texts, 48% know the child’s email password, 39% have used parental controls to in some way monitor the child’s online activities, and 16% of parents admit to using location-tracking apps like Life360, which allows connected users to immediately see their family members’ locations.

“Ever since my dad installed this app, he and I have grown farther apart.”

But invading your kids’ privacy by snooping on their phones and tracking their locations, even in an attempt to keep them safe, could significantly harm the relationship you share. “When kids feel like their privacy is really being invaded, what they tend to do is fortify the boundaries they perceive as around their personal stuff or personal information,” says Skyler Hawk, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Typically they do that by reducing the amount of disclosure that they are freely offering to parents, and increasing the amount of secrecy in the relationship.”

Hawk published a longitudinal study in 2013 that looked at how nearly 500 adolescents responded to their parents’ snooping, asking nosy questions, reading their emails, or otherwise acting in ways that kids determined to be invasive. It found that if adolescents felt their privacy was being breached, they became more secretive and less likely to disclose information to their parents one year later. Hawk points out that kids, generally, are pretty understanding and forgiving of their parents’ surveillance to a certain degree; it isn’t that most kids are unreasonably opposed to their parents needing, and clumsily searching for, information on their private affairs. But once it crosses a certain line — in particular, once it becomes covert — kids respond by putting up walls against their parents.

That frustration and disappointment can be found in another fascinating study from 2018 that analyzed children’s online reviews of parental control apps in the Google Play store. According to that study, 76% of teens using Google Play gave the apps a single star; many of them wrote that they could sense how these apps were eroding their relationships with their parents.

“This app will cause trust issues with your kids,” wrote one child reviewer. “Ever since my dad installed this app, he and I have grown farther apart. If he doesn’t trust me enough to use my phone, then why should I trust him?” Another: “Seriously, if you love your kids at all, why don’t you try communicating with them instead of buying spyware. What’s wrong with you all? And you say we’re the generation with communication problems.”

Excessive tracking can erode a child’s general concept of trust, which can potentially impact future relationships down the line.

The reviews articulate the importance of open, clear communication between parent and child; the issue for these kids isn’t that they want the freedom to misbehave, but rather that they prioritize disclosure on their own terms, and value their parents’ trust in them that they feel the tracking apps undermine.

Yet it isn’t only the parent-child relationship that snooping and surveillance can harm. Excessive tracking can erode a child’s general concept of trust, which can potentially impact future relationships down the line.

“The use of tracking apps can give a message to the child that they cannot be trusted to look out for themselves or to make responsible decisions,” says Tonya Rooney, an early childhood researcher at Australian Catholic University and editor of the book Surveillance Futures: Social and Ethical Implications of New Technologies for Children and Young People. “These are important skills for developing independence and confidence, skills that help guard against risks a child may encounter later in life.”

In a 2010 paper about how surveillance impacts children, Rooney writes that when parents demonstrate fear and paranoia by over-surveilling their kids, it diminishes the child’s ability to better navigate risky situations in the future. It makes sense: A culture of fear often only serves to further perpetuate fear, and a child that is raised to be afraid of their environment will carry that anxiety into their future.

Surveillance and lack of privacy can also cause generally heighten feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression, as numerous studies, including a 2010 review of research on workplace surveillance, indicate. The review found that workplace surveillance negatively impacts productivity, motivation, and stresses out employees.

If surveillance apps stress out kids, damage familial relationships and trust, increase children’s secrecy and reduce disclosure, and potentially harm their ability to navigate risk later in life, is there any reason at all to waste your money and time installing them on your kid’s phone? According to Hawk, not really.

Screenshot from Net Nanny’s iOS App Store description. “Imagine the peace of mind,” it says, alluding to parental anxiety over a child’s online activity.

“I don’t see a lot of value in installing these kinds of technologies to truly keep children safe, or to truly keep them out of trouble,” he says. “The real value of these technologies, and you can see this in the way they are advertised to parents, is more about parental anxiety management.” He says in some circumstances, such as if a child has a disability that hampers their communication, or if a child has a demonstrated habit of getting into serious trouble, the apps could help parents keep track of their children’s safety and, in the latter case, regain trust. But ultimately, he says, the tools backfire by pushing children and parents further apart in a time when open, honest communication is of the utmost importance.

A screenshot from Life360’s App Store description. The quote from parent Miranda Carter illustrates how the app is meant to ease parental worry; the claim that the app eliminates the need to send text messages inquiring when one’s child will be home makes clear how apps such as Life360 damage communication between parent and child.

So how should you talk to your kids when you’re worried about their safety? A child that feels safe discussing their life with their parent is likely to be safer than those who don’t trust their parent or feel that their parents know everything through snooping. Talking to your kids won’t always be easy — anyone with memories of sitting down as a teen and having conversations with their parents about friend group issues, romance drama, and school troubles can agree with that. But it’s worth it, and who knows? Maybe all those conversations will lead to strong, healthy family relationships that last well into a child’s adulthood.

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