An increasing number of parents are turning to Life360 and other tracking apps to monitor kids and family members. Critics, including some teens, liken the emerging apps — which can monitor location, driving speed and texting while driving — as a digital form of stalking with potential to erode privacy.
When Kira Adelman was 17 and on a first date, she got a call from her mom when she strayed from a walking path at the park. Alarmed, her mom asked, “What are you doing in the woods?”
A few years later, Adelman was driving 85 mph on the way to college and her mom, Lynne McMullin, hours away, took a screenshot of the speed and texted it to her.
More recently, when Adelman misplaced her phone after a late night, her mom was able to locate the phone, zoom in on its last location and, even with the battery drained, spot it on the front lawn.
“It’s kept me on the straight and narrow,” said Adelman. And, the technology goes both ways. Adelman can also see the whereabouts of her mother and grandmother. “I can see when my mom is at Parx Casino. It prevents her from going to the casino because Grandma can see how much time she’s there.”
Adelman, now 22, knows she is being tracked through the location-sharing Life360 phone app, and though she has mixed feelings about it, she’s experienced both the perks and drawbacks of her family’s use of technology to keep tabs on each other.
Social media experts say tracking apps such as Life360, Find My Friends, Footprints, Family Tracker and more are growing in popularity. Life360, founded in 2008, alone has more than 23 million members, and is a favorite among a growing number of parents who say they can tap into monitoring features that go beyond geographic mapping.
Life360 is a free app that groups people into private, invite-only circles, in which users can view others’ recent and real-time whereabouts, see if someone is texting while driving, and get alerts when family comes and goes from most frequented places and when a user’s battery is low. A premium, paid feature can detect when people are in a car crash, and alert emergency services or call for roadside assistance.
Life360 spokeswoman Sara Sutyak said the app is a big draw to families because it helps them keep track of their safety and schedules.
“Our typical Life360 family uses Life360 to coordinate their hectic lives,” she said. “It helps create friction-less coordination, helping families coordinate everything from grocery shopping to when to put dinner on the table or to know where pick up is on the soccer field.”
One recent day, Lynne McMullin sat beside her daughter and her mother, Geri McMullin, at their Doylestown, Pennsylvania, home and displayed the app on her phone, pointing to a GPS-like map with moving dots, each representing a person in their circle, the term used to describe a network of connected users.
“It gives me peace of mind,” said Lynne McMullin, who marveled at the ability to see one daughter’s whereabouts when she was out of the country on a school trip. “They don’t have to call or text to tell me where they are. I just check the app.”
Many area parents say tracking apps, like Life 360, reduces worry.
But some local teens say it also reduces trust.
“I find that tracking apps for the most part are used by parents who don’t trust their kids or who are nervous about their kids growing up,” said teen Emma Garry, who graduated in May from the Pennington School in Mercer County. “I feel as though I don’t get the same summer freedom that my parents got to experience where they were told to come home when it was dark and that was that.”
She’s not alone.
On popular teen social media platforms, teens are mocking and venting about parental surveillance in Life360 TikTok Memes and videos claiming it’s ruining their summer. “Who ever created life360 is the biggest snitch of all time,” one teen laments. Other responses include: “My moms instinct is stronger than Life360.” “So glad my parents haven’t found out about Life360 yet.” “I’m glad my parents aren’t tech savvy and still believe I’m innocent.”
Garry said her parents got the app about a year ago, and previously used “Find My iPhone,” an app that comes with the Apple phone.
“They’ve always had some sort of tracking device on me since 6th grade,” said Garry, who is heading into her freshman year at Penn State. “The app just makes me feel like I’m always being watched, even though I know that’s not the case. There’s no reason my parents should or would be stalking me, but it just makes me feel uncomfortable. I’m out doing ‘teenager things’ but feel like my parents are there with me.”
Keeleigh Boyles, 11, said most kids her age don’t mind the tracking apps. She said it’s common that parents use technology to help monitor them. Plus, she said, she has nothing to worry about.
“It’s not like I’m sneaking out,” she said.
Not just for kids
Local families realize the app’s benefits are not just to keep track of young ones with phones, but rather to know the locations of their adult friends and family members, too.
Jean Peterson, of Mount Holly, said her adult family members were eager to opt in on Life360.
“We are currently all adults and can opt in or out; surprisingly all the younger family members, ages 20 to 35, requested to be included,” she said. “It has helped on more than one instance of when the car broke down and we were able to get to their location easily by using the ‘directions to there’ mode.”
She also makes use of the “directions mode” by reversing it to get expected time of arrival for dinner when family is traveling home from work.
“We have several younger family members who work second shift and travel through the city to get home late at night,” Peterson said. “It gives peace of mind when us older folks can at a glance see that they have arrived safely home.”
She said her niece uses it to find out when family is home so she can get a free meal and a swim in the pool.
“I don’t worry about privacy or trust issues,” Peterson said. “We had one family member who was concerned but decided convenience outweighed concerns, and another family member has the driving habits turned off so her dad cannot comment on her top speed on a trip.”
At 11 years old, Anna Showbrooks has the Friend Finder app so she can keep in touch with her friends. “You can also see when your friend’s phone battery is low and text them to charge their phone,” she said. “And I don’t care about my mom seeing where I am.”
Her mother, Elizabeth Showbrooks, said the app gives her added comfort when her family is at the shore and the kids want to walk along the boardwalk. “I can also see when my son is (driving) on his way home,” said Showbrooks, who feels an added layer of safety by knowing their location, especially at night.
McMullin’s husband, Bucks County Sheriff’s Deputy Gary Bruno, said his family has been using the app for years.
“As a deputy, when I’m out late at night, my wife can use it to put her mind at ease that I’m OK because she can see me moving,” said Bruno, who also works as an Uber driver. “She actually called me once when it appeared on the app that I was in the woods for an extended period of time. As an Uber driver, she can also put her mind at ease as long as she sees me moving late at night.”
Drawbacks and limits
Joseph M. Yeager, founder of Safety Net of Pennsylvania, said he’s not a fan of such apps.
“Yes, knowing where your family members are and the panic button feature that it has can be a good thing,” Yeager said. “Personally, I’m more concerned with the lack of privacy that it opens up to people, but especially to children. It opens up the opportunity for 24/7 helicopter parenting, where parents get too involved with what their kids are doing.”
Some tracking apps that go beyond just location monitoring are banned in other countries because people in relationships were having more invasive apps installed on their partner’s phones without their knowledge, Yeager said.
Even if family members realize a tracking app is installed, privacy issues still surface, Yeager said. “These apps eliminate ‘alone time’ because if someone is using an app of this nature, they are always under the microscope.”
Bruno acknowledged a few drawbacks of the app.
“I’ve inquired of my daughter why she was using the phone so often while driving and she said she was not,” he said. “ Apparently, because she plays her music from her phone on Bluetooth in the car, Life360 indicates that as ‘phone usage.'”
The app, he said, also shows “top speed” on a trip.
“It can be very concerning when you see that a child was going 80 mph but that can sometimes be what they did for a few seconds while overtaking a slow-moving vehicle,” he said.
Bruno also questions the use of such apps for a “next day” glance.
“While it is great for tracking people out of concern, some people use it ‘next day’ to see where one was the night before or what time they arrived home,” he said. “I think that is a bit of invasion of privacy.”
Josh Ochs, an author and expert on social media safety, said parents are struggling to keep up with their children and are seeking other resources that can help them. But, he said, they shouldn’t lean too heavily on tracking apps.
“Parental control apps are there to help, however, they can be a false sense of security at times,” he said. “The best safety app is a healthy ongoing dialogue between parents and students face to face about social media, online reputation and digital relationships.”
He added, “Parental control tracking apps are like an airbag in a car; they are the last line of defense to protect your child when driving, but there’s a lot more parents can do to protect their kids earlier on.”
Ochs advises on his site, SmartSocial.com, that parents be on the same apps as their kids, so they can see what they are seeing online.
“If a parent outsources the safety of their child to these apps without investing time in a healthy dialogue and safety contract then they might have a false sense of security,” he said.
Geri McMullin, Adelman’s grandmother, said that she also got the alert that her granddaughter was driving 85 mph, and although she uses the app, she has mixed feelings about it, too.
“In a way it’s awful,” said McMullin, who has a heightened sense of worry and a stronger sense of responsibility to check the app when her daughter is away. “I think sometimes not knowing is better than knowing.”