Tom has a deal with his sons, ages 15 and 20: they’re allowed to have cell phones on the condition that nothing on them is considered “confidential.”
The Toronto dad, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, says both boys agreed to the terms without complaint.
“[They know that] as parents, we’d never snoop unnecessarily and only in the interest of safety,” said Tom.
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As part of the agreement, each member of the family has the Find Friends app — a location service that allows users to see where friends and family are positioned at any given moment. Tom uses it to “track” his sons, but it’s really just to make sure they’re safe.
“As a family that’s often in different locations at different times — work, university, high school, etc. — we use it primarily as a way to check on safe arrivals or pick-up locations,” he said. “The kids can track us as much as we track them.”
Tom says it’s especially convenient for checking in on his 20-year-old, who’s away at school in a different city.
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“He’s obviously entitled to his freedom and privacy, we get that, but since he’s not in the same city, I do check to see that he’s safely back home after a night out without the real-time intrusion of a text asking where he is or to let me know he’s OK,” he said.
Tom says this allows him to mollify his parental worries without intruding on his son’s social life.
“I’m pretty sure they know it’s only used out of love and concern, and just maybe, it also gives them a sense of security knowing they could be found if anything ever went wrong.”
Tom isn’t alone. In a 2016 survey, 16 per cent of parents with children between the ages of 13 to 17 admitted to tracking their location.
Tracking is growing increasingly common, says registered psychologist Sara Dimmerman, but not all children will be as agreeable as Tom’s. Some kids are bound to bristle at the idea of their parents watching their every move, and parents need to prepare for that.
“You run the risk of getting into a battle with a loved one who doesn’t want to be watched over, or who feels that you’re spying on them [because] you don’t trust them,” she said.
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Such feelings can cause conflict between you and your child, said Dimmerman.
That’s why it’s vital that your child “consents and sees that they’re able to continue as normal.”
Here, Dimmerman and parenting expert Vanessa Lapointe sound off on the pros and cons to tracking, and how to create a relationship of trust with your child — even if you are tracking them.
The pros and cons
As Tom demonstrates, knowing where your child is with the touch of a button can be extremely comforting, especially for parents with anxiety.
“Caregivers can rest assured that their loved one has reached a destination safely, for example,” said Dimmerman. Apps can also be convenient, allowing you to track your child without bugging them by asking ‘where are you?’ by call or text.
Tracking apps — especially those that allow children to see their parents’ whereabouts, too — can also contribute to an overall feeling of connectedness, said Lapointe.
“Part of the attraction … is to feel connected to one another when you aren’t physically together,” she said. “When my [son] gets home from school and I’m at [work], and I message him right away to tell him about the snack I left in the fridge, I’m basically the best mom ever.”
But, as with anything, tracking apps can also be used in unhealthy ways. Dimmerman says tracking can actually contribute to a paralyzing need to know where your child is at all times.
“If you don’t have [your phone] with you or if [the app] isn’t working properly, your anxiety [may] increase as a result of not knowing your [child’s] whereabouts so easily,” she said.
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The concept of tracking can also drive a wedge between you and your child, especially if the reasons you track your child are malicious or out of anger or distrust.
Lapointe says “any approach that involves secrecy … or spying” or “using intelligence [gleaned from tracking] against your child in order to punish or shame them” will never go well.
That’s why both Dimmerman and Lapointe emphasize the need for honesty and transparency between you and your child — both before and during the use of any tracking devices.
How to build trust with your child
One of the things you should consider before tracking your child, said Lapointe, is your intent.
“What is your intention behind using this kind of technology?” she said. “If [it’s] to spy on your kids … that kind of parenting is never going to bode well for the relationship you have with your child.”
That’s why it’s critical to get your child’s consent before tracking them.
It can hurt your relationship to require your child to download a tracking app or carry a device, “such as when a parent threatens to stop paying for cell phone service unless the teen grants permission to be tracked,” said Dimmerman.
“In contrast, if a parent has explained their rationale for wanting to keep a watchful eye, and the teen consents and sees that they are able to continue as normal, then the relationship will not be negatively impacted.”
Ultimately, whether your child is trustworthy will depend on the actions you’ve modelled for them throughout their childhood. “Model telling the truth,” said Dimmerman. “If you even tell white lies, your children will do the same.”
There are some privacy concerns that can accompany the use of tracking apps or devices.
“Any tracking app can potentially gather data about where users are — not just for the users themselves, but for the service provider,” said Ray Walsh, a digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy.
“Tracking data can be used to figure out a person’s commonly used routes and habits. It can even be used to make secondary inferences about their health status.”
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This information can be potentially sold to advertisers or other interested third parties, such as insurance companies.
Walsh says using a tracking device can also make you vulnerable to “hacking.”
“Using trackers on a regular basis can allow a database to be created of your movement habits, [which] can lead to a database that shows exactly when you leave your home each day to go to work, for example,” he said.
“If hacked, this sensitive data can potentially allow criminals to figure out when it is best to burgle a home.”
Finally, there’s a chance the app could be used for “stalking” purposes.
“Parents should also be extremely wary of the potential for their children to allow other contacts to add them on their tracker,” Walsh said. “This could allow their children to be stalked, and for this reason children need to understand that it is a massive privacy and security risk to allow anybody but their parents to track them.”
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