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Do Tracking Devices Make Our Kids Safer?

I’ve become the FBI for my kid, and I’m not sure if it’s for her benefit or mine

Children running with illustrated tracking device
The Arrow/Shutterstock

“You’re getting too crazy with the monitoring,” my wife howled at me the other night as I tried to glance at my phone without her noticing.

She’s right, of course. My 12-year-old daughter hadn’t been gone an hour, and I’d already tracked her whereabouts a few dozen times.

I use Life360, a phone app that informs me where she is at all times, whether she’s gotten into a kidnapper’s car and whether that kidnapper is at least responsible enough to obey the speed limit.

Apps that spy on our kids are getting more advanced. The Find My Kids app lets you remotely activate the microphone on your child’s phone, so you can eavesdrop without them knowing. OurPact takes screenshots of their online conversations, and Bark will keep you informed of any "concerning interactions." 

How did we end up in a Black Mirror plotline? My wife and I were determined to keep our daughter off the grid till at least age 12. Then I got freaked out by all the school shootings, so we got her a phone solely so she could text us in an emergency. She was 2.

That was a decade ago. Now, thanks to tracking apps, we know what she’s posting on social media, who she’s flirting with over SMS (and what they’re saying back) and her exact GPS location at all times. 

Is any of this helping? Not according to Sonia Livingstone, a professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “I have seen no research showing children are safer, better off or encountering less harm because their parents track them,” she told me.

The more details these apps give us, the more likely we are to fall down a rabbit hole of panic. Some apps, such as myFirst Fone, can monitor heart rate, so you’re alerted if your kid is running or stressed out. But how do I know if my daughter’s being chased by a predator or if she’s just playing ding-dong ditch with the cute boy's house across the street? Or maybe she ran because she didn't want to be late for school after cutting lunch to smoke a joint with her friend Zoe who lives nearby?

Livingstone warns that all this tracking causes kids to "succumb to our culture of fear,” but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. They mostly seem annoyed. There are Reddit boards and TikTok videos devoted to teens and preteens sharing strategies on disabling parental trackers. My daughter doesn’t care either way, but that’s because she’s 12. “I know I don't do anything wrong,” she says. Yeah, give it time. 

“It does make me feel more safe,” she told me. “Because what if I was abducted by a creepy old guy who looked like you?” I’m pretty sure she was being sarcastic. Which means I’ve succeeded as a Gen X dad, even as I’m failing at being a Gen X dad.

The reality is, the only one succumbing to a culture of fear is us. We’re full of fear, Livingstone says, “for the safety of their children, for the unknown digital future, for being blamed and shamed if something goes wrong.”

I complain all the time about how kids today are too coddled. Yet I knowingly bought my child a digital ankle bracelet, not because she needs it or it makes her feel protected but because it eases my anxiety about the unknown.

I’m a hypocrite. No, worse, I’m like J. Edgar Hoover in a Sonic Youth T-shirt. I think I’m the cool dad, but I have more files on my daughter than the late FBI director had on John Lennon.

My wife was right. I can’t control a chaotic world by watching our daughter’s every move. I’ve created bogeymen in my head, and it’s been making me miserable. After her “too crazy” comment, I told my wife I’d immediately delete the tracking app from my phone.“Wait, no, don’t do that,” she said. “Then I can’t see where you are.”

Follow Article Topics: Family-&-Fatherhood