Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Tracking Your Teen: Stalking, or Staying Safe?

The minute my daughter passed her driver’s test, I entered the ethical quagmire of stalking.

We downloaded the location-based tracking app Life360, both to see if she’s driving safely and to give her the additional security of help arriving quickly in case of an accident.

At that level, it seems as rational as using a baby monitor for an infant in a crib. But the idea of being able to follow her movements also makes me uneasy.

I surely wouldn’t have wanted my own parents to have this technology when I was a teenager. Isn’t part of growing up learning from mistakes and learning how to navigate tough situations?

Before this, I had never used a monitoring device on the kids’ phones, focusing instead on talking to them about the pitfalls of today’s technology.

But driving feels different.

Car accidents are a leading cause of injury and death for teens. It felt almost negligent not to take advantage of a resource that could give us peace of mind and possibly make her a safer driver.

I’m not alone in this decision, however reluctantly I came to it. There are 50 million families who use the Life360 app. Millions more use features like the iPhone’s Find Your Friends feature to keep track of their family members’ whereabouts.

I asked a dozen of my closest mom friends whether they used some kind of tracking app. Only one said no: She expects her kids to stay in touch with her via their phones, and they do a good job with it. She wants communication to be a two-way street between them.

The rest said it gives them peace of mind or a sense of security. After all, sometimes teens don’t or can’t respond to their parents’ texts. Phone batteries die. Practices run late. Plans with friends change at the last minute.

One mother with three teenage daughters with hectic schedules said that tracking them is better than having to nag them all the time via text to see where they are.

It’s true that many teens have more demanding schedules than we did at their age, and we live in a more anxious parenting age with the near-daily news of mass shootings.

Parents say their children also use the app to keep track of them, especially when they are late picking them up from somewhere. One mother tracks when her son leaves work and when he’s on his way home from school. Her daughter keeps track of her mom the same way.

The question becomes where we draw the line.

“I like to know that my college-age kid made it back to his dorm room at night,” one parent said, who continues to track her college-aged son’s whereabouts.

Another said she got a discount on their car insurance by installing a physical tracker on her teen’s car. It monitors speed, hard braking and other driving patterns. It gives the family a weekly driving grade, and their insurance rates are tied to the scores.

But do we feel comfortable knowing that these apps and tech companies are eventually selling all this data to make even more profits off tracking our movements?

Some of our children may call us dictators, or protest that they are living in an “authoritarian state,” as my teenager initially did, but I’m living under the same conditions. This is perhaps a more in-your-face reminder of how much of our privacy we have given away for convenience and security. It’s an uncomfortable reminder that our thoughts, relationships and consumption habits -- expressed through our search histories, social media posts and online purchases -- are tracked, stored and sold, often in ways we don’t even know. Now, we can add our very movements to the list.

At the end of the day, maybe we won’t even need this particular tracking app too much. Our daughter’s younger brother, who she now drives to school, seems to view his new commute as a daily gamble. He sends us a reassuring text upon arrival: “She got us here safely.”

Of course, we had checked our apps, and already knew.