“The helicopter parent” is a term that has gained significant popularity over the past several years. It was coined for the parent who deems it their personal responsibility to be involved in every aspect of their child’s life. The duties of the helicopter parent include endlessly prying about their child’s friends, relationships and, often, their whereabouts. For years, technology did not offer a means for the child surveillance that helicopter parents desire, but today — in the age of advanced smartphones — a variety of tracking apps exist, and they act as the perfect way for anxious parents to have constant eyes on their children.
One app in particular, Life360, has garnered significant attention — good and bad — since its launch in 2008. Before examining its ethics, it’s important to understand how exactly an app like Life360 works. It is essentially a GPS tracker, putting your child in your pocket at all times. Since young adults today spend so much time with their phone on their person, digital tracking is an easy way to have constant access to their location. The app even allows users to pinpoint specific locations, so that they are notified when their child arrives at school, or when they return home.
There are clearly safety benefits to an app like this. When teenagers are out and about with their friends, it can give parents intense peace of mind to always have their location. The app’s paid version even offers impressive safety features that monitor a user’s driving, and can detect if a crash has occurred while simultaneously dispatching emergency services. Life360 has even managed to locate some missing kids, so it is by no means the devil. However, questions have been raised regarding its invasiveness.
Pre-digital era, parents didn’t have access to child surveillance apps. Many would tell their kids to be home at a certain time — perhaps before dark — and if they chose to disrespect that rule, they would be barred from hanging out with their friends in the future. Obviously, in a world without fancy tracking devices, parents didn’t have much of a choice but to put their trust in their child. Still, this parenting model allows for something that helicopter parenting does not — the benefit of the doubt. Apps like Life360 undermine this very principle, assuming the worst of their kids before they have any reason to.
Young adulthood is supposed to be a time for self-exploration. Many are yearning for things that are key to their future happiness — a sense of independence, an established identity. However, it is impossible for a child to gain any form of self-reliance if their time away from their parents is constantly punctuated by anxious texts and calls facilitated by always knowing where they are. Tracking apps rob kids of the very thing they need most: space to grow up.
This can have irrevocable negative effects. As kids, we are like sponges, absorbing the world around us and, oftentimes, hanging on our parent’s every word. We carry the rules and boundaries that are set in the childhood home into adulthood. Intense monitoring by parents communicates to a child in a not-so-subtle way that the world is a dangerous and unforgiving place, and that they will only be safe if Mom and Dad are standing over their shoulder, watching their every move. This can have starkly negative effects on a child’s mental health.
Developmental psychologist Kathleen Jodl — a lecturer in the Department of Psychology — is wary of the effects that tracking apps can have on adolescents. She emphasized that this generation in particular may be more susceptible to the app’s effects. “The data suggests that this is a generation with high levels of anxiety,” she said. “And these kinds of things can feed into that, and cause false perceptions of dangers that might not actually be there.”
Countless studies have shown this to be true. According to the American Psychological Association, just 45% of Gen Z reports their mental health as being good. Older generations fared much better, with 56% of Millennials and 70% of Boomers claiming good mental health. Of course, this anxiety did not appear out of thin air. Gen Z has been given plenty to worry about — school shootings, a global pandemic, climate change — and these problems don’t appear to be going anywhere. Instead, we have been forced to grow up with them as a fact of life.
Invasive use of apps like Life360 means that instead of parents easing their children’s anxiety about the world around them, many add to it. With the use of tracking apps at an all time high, parents are implicitly telling their kids that they should feel anxious about the world around them, because they are anxious about it too.
It is even more concerning that, for many, the tracking does not end with childhood. Families who are dedicated users of Life360 will often continue to track their kids into their college years. The app allows them to see whether their child is in class or partying in a frat house. While this will give parents grappling with empty nest syndrome some piece of mind, it comes at a price. College students are supposed to be learning to live independently — a task that comes with its own unique set of challenges — but if parents are monitoring every move they make, they are robbed of this rite of passage.
So, how do we loosen this digital leash? While many would say that ceasing to track your child altogether is the answer, many are entirely uncomfortable with this. The solution may then arise from the way parents use the app. An LSA sophomore who wishes to keep their thoughts on Life360 anonymous said that they do not feel their privacy is being violated by their family’s use of the app. Their family decided together to download Life360 in order to provide some peace of mind as they moved away to college. “My family personally, we have an understanding,” they said, “it’s okay if I go offline for a while. They trust me enough to know that if my location is off, it’s not because I’m doing something unsafe.”
They aren’t alone. Many have reported their family’s use of the app as something they are totally comfortable with. However, in order for this to be the case, the app needs to be used as a safety precaution, not as a means for control or punishment. Realistically, if a child feels as though their parents don’t trust them, downloading Life360 will only feed that belief, not solve it. To use the app noninvasively means setting boundaries — likely to look different for each family — through an open conversation between the parents and the child. Most importantly, the child’s independence and freedom need to be preserved, particularly in young adulthood. This means refraining from checking the app 24/7, or immediately calling when your child’s location has moved all but an inch. Instead, choose to trust your child until they give you a reason not to — and it is more than likely they will trust you in return.
Rebecca Smith is an Opinion Columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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