Geolocation apps like Find My Kids, Google Family Link, and Apple’s FindMy are rapidly growing in popularity, giving parents unprecedented powers to track their offspring. But how are the latter experiencing what previous generations might have labeled as an intrusion into their privacy? Could these devices even harm young people’s sense of independence?
We set out to answer these and other questions in our research design, which involved a series of individual interviews with 16 parents who geo-tracked their children and 16 adolescents who were geo-tracked (some of whom were the children of the interviewed parents).
Keeping them safe
Overall, parents who took part in our survey said they were drawn to using these apps not out of snooping, but out of a sense of caring in what they perceived as potentially dangerous or, at the very least, uncertain environments.
This is consistent with the profile of our subjects, who lived exclusively in urban areas and therefore tendentially sensitive to the dangers inherent in city life. “When I see what’s going on in certain neighborhoods, I’m very happy that my daughter calls me when she leaves the house,” explains Virginie, a 38-year-old teacher. This feeling was also echoed by the 46-year-old salesman Stéphane:
“When you look at what happened in Nice [where a terrorist ran down dozens of people with a truck in 2016]I think you should be irresponsible for not wanting to know where your children are.”
Virginie tracks down her daughter only occasionally, usually preferring to wait for her to call. Stéphane, meanwhile, takes a more insistent approach. Since the tool is already available, he believes it is every parent’s responsibility to use it. Of course, knowing a child’s geographic location cannot guarantee their safety in the face of a real-time crash, but tracking their whereabouts can help ease parental fears.
Other parents interviewed admitted to monitoring their children’s geographic location only in case of unanswered phone calls or unfulfilled requests. Rather than a systematic method of surveillance, geo-tracking acted as a “last resort” after parents failed to reach their child.
Mohamed, a 39-year-old private sector executive, said he self-regulates his use of the tool because he finds it “unhealthy” to geolocate his son except in very specific circumstances.
Alexandre, a 54-year-old baker, explained that he felt reassured when his daughter was where he expected her to be. He said he often had “doubts that she’s okay” and wanted to know. That’s why he “can’t stand” when his daughter circumvents the limits he sets for herself by using the app. For example, if at some point in the day he turns off his phone, this often becomes a topic of discussion later.
Where it was seen as a necessity, geo-tracking appeared in principle to be quite well accepted by some teenagers in our survey. Mélanie, 13, seemed to have internalized her parents’ safety warnings, saying she always saw “strange things happening” on the news and adding that “at least, if something’s wrong, your parents know where you are.”
However, the majority of teens in our sample were critical of their parents’ use of tracking apps. When asked if they thought the app options were too much, nearly all commented on geo-tracking and time limits placed on social media.
Dylan, 16, saw the former as ‘a step too far’, while Florian, 17, said ‘everyone deserves their privacy, especially at a certain age’. And Julie, 16, liked tech for a lack of parenting:
“I think you’ve failed as a parent if you follow your kids like that, only to find out if they’re lying to you about what they’re doing and where they’re going.”
Subjective words versus objective data
In cases where the predicted location didn’t match that provided by the app, many teens surveyed complained that the tracking device left little room for context and even less for cover-up. Unlike texts or photos, which would offer some leeway for interpretation, young people found it much more difficult to justify an unexpected geographical location to their parents.
Some teenagers in our survey had experienced similar situations before. One of the more startling accounts came from 15-year-old Xavier, unaware that his father was tracking him and skipping remedial class to play video games with his friend. Back home, he was confronted with a technology that gave him no occasion to discuss with his parents:
“[My dad] he asked me if i had been to tutoring and i lied… Then he showed me the tablet, and there is nothing you can say. It’s all there: where were you, what time…”
Trust on trial
Geo-tracing is therefore not without consequences on intra-family relationships. Xavier, for example, said that discovering that he had been tracked deeply undermined the trust between him and his father. “You don’t go install something like that unless you suspect someone,” he lamented.
Additionally, tensions can arise between parents over whether or not to use such tools, particularly in shared custody cases. “I’ve already talked about it several times with my ex-wife,” explains Mohamed. “She has her own way of raising our daughters; I have mine. We don’t have the same view on the matter.” He gave his interpretation of how such disagreements might occur: “Trust is key. If you are spying on your children, then there is no trust. And if there is no trust between a father and a son, then something is really gone wrong.”
The ability to track without being tracked, the inability to turn off a device without notifying the tracker, and the tracker’s preference for data over the word of the person being tracked all serve to widen the gap between parents and children.
Supervision of young people’s digital activities was confined solely to the home (e.g., monitoring children’s browsing history, photos they take, apps they install, etc.). But geographic monitoring directly challenges young people’s need to learn to go out into the world unaccompanied, hampering adolescent autonomy and generating strains in parent-child relationships.
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Citation: Geolocation apps: how are parent-child relationships going? (2022 Nov 25) Retrieved Nov 25, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-11-geo-tracking-apps-parent-child.html
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