My husband and I handed my son a cell phone not long after he turned 11. He spends many afternoons at the nearby park or playing at friends’ houses, and I was tired of not being able to reach him when I wanted him to come home. And, if I’m honest, his constant pleas for an iPhone had worn us down.
Within days of our purchase, I bought a subscription to Life360 and installed the app on his phone. The app bills itself as a “platform for today’s busy families, bringing them closer together by helping them better know, communicate with, and protect the people they care about most.”
I was all in. The app let me track where my son was with satellite detail. I could watch how fast he was traveling and I got notifications whenever he went somewhere. Within days, I was addicted to watching the tiny blue dot that represented my child move across the map.
Having Life360 felt like a gift. My son would never be lost or out of reach. No one could kidnap him! My mind fast-forwarded to his high school years. “He won’t get away with anything,” I said to myself as I delved deeper into the app’s tracking features. Reckless driving? Not on my Apple watch.
As a teenager, I often lied about where I was and who I was with.
I didn’t want my parents to know I was at a party or out driving in downtown Houston where I had no business being. I had a pager my senior year, but I could pull over at any payphone and call back without caller ID ratting me out. Most of my antics were good old rebellious teenage fun. I was never at risk for serious harm and I never missed curfew.
But after a few months of monitoring my son, it dawned on me that I hadn’t trusted my parents to allow me to go where I wanted. So I didn’t tell them where I went. I hid from them and shut them out of my world. I couldn’t talk to them about things that happened because I’d have to tell the truth. That’s not what I want for my son. I want him to confide in me, not because surveillance apps force him to, but because he wants me to know what’s going on in his life.
I stopped in my tracks when I asked him one night where he was going, and he responded with a cold, “Just open Life360.” He’d never said anything about being monitored, but it was clear he wasn’t a fan. Mutual trust isn’t built on power and control.
What about safety?
I didn’t delete the app right then because I clung to the excuse that we were all safer with it. I grew up seeing photos of kids on milk cartons. Stranger danger lectures included pictures of white vans and instructions to run from anyone halfway unfamiliar. I imagine millions of other 40-somethings are latching on to apps like Life360 to quell the fears of our youth.
There’s a sense that knowing my son’s exact location will take away the anxiety that he might disappear one day, never to return. But according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), child abductions by strangers are incredibly rare. The vast majority of children who go missing have run away, in which case I’m sure they’ve long since ditched their phones.
Teenagers put themselves at risk of a different kind of danger by scheming ways to circumvent the tracking features on their phones. There’s nothing stopping my son from leaving his phone where he’s supposed to be and going where he wants to be instead. Except now he’ll be without a phone if he ends up in trouble or needs to text our secret code, which means, “Come pick me up now.” And if he doesn’t want to leave his phone behind, there are TikTok videos that explain how teens can change their phone settings and trick the app into freezing their location.
If the car he’s in is speeding, I can’t stop it. If he’s injured away from home, I won’t be the first on the scene. Being able to track his location via an app on his phone only gives me the illusion of control. No app will keep him safe.
The Ground Rules
I know that many parents and teens are okay with using Life360 and appreciate the services it provides. But I decided it wasn’t right for us. So came up with a different set of ground rules for my son. To keep his phone, he must:
- Tell us where he’s going and call or text if he changes locations.
- Always answer or reply when we call or text.
- Keep his phone charged.
- Understand that we’ll use “Find My iPhone” to pinpoint his location in an actual emergency where we can’t locate him.
There are many times I long for the days when my biggest parenting problem was managing a meltdown in the middle of Target. Letting go as my son flexes his right to independence and privacy feels like a million tiny cuts to the heart. But I can’t keep him safe by holding on tighter and quitting Life360 is my signal to him that we’re in this teenage thing together.