Honey, let’s track the kids: the rise of parental surveillance


a blue photo retouch with a map floor with location symbol very big on top. on bottom kids. gives at first impression tranquility, but it is scary.
04.05.2022 - 08:48
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Phone apps now allow parents to follow every move their children make. But does keeping them safe come at a price?



At 4pm on a Friday afternoon in June 2019, Macy Smith, then 17 years old, was driving alone in a white hatchback near Pilot Mountain in North Carolina. The road twisted through a thick forest and a torrential summer storm lashed down. Macy lost control on a corner and the car hydroplaned, hurtling through the trees and flipping over three times before settling in a ravine. She was flung into the back seat and the vehicle pinned her left arm to the ground.

Macy was frantic: she stretched for her phone, but couldn’t reach it. She listened out for passing cars, but it was a remote spot and they didn’t come often. The first went by without stopping, then the next, then a third. It became dark. Macy had lost feeling in the arm that was trapped, and her neck throbbed. By 10.30pm, 28 cars had come and gone. But then the 29th did stop: Macy heard the doors open, and the voices of her stepfather and brother calling her name. They followed the tyre skids down the embankment and her stepfather held her hand through the blown-out sunroof. Macy had kept it together until this point, but now she sobbed.


The family had found Macy using the Find My Friends app, which allows users with Apple iPhones to share their location with others. Her mother, Catrina Cramer Alexander, had checked it when Macy hadn’t come home and was not answering calls. They then jumped in their car and followed the pulsing blue dot to the ravine.

“Having that location, if we didn’t have that, we would have never known where to look,” Alexander told a local TV station. “I’m certain that that is what saved her life.”

What happened to Macy is every parent’s worst nightmare, though mercifully there was a happy-ish ending: Macy had a fractured neck and underwent an operation to repair nerve damage in her arm. But it’s not hard to imagine a worse outcome. What if her phone had smashed? What if it couldn’t get a signal in the forest? “It’s unreal that I survived that crash,” she said afterwards.


Find My Friends was unveiled on 4 October 2011, the day before Steve Jobs’s death, and has been installed as standard on Apple products since 2015. But the app was not the first or even the market leader: that’s Life360, which describes itself as a “family safety service” and has received funding from Google and Facebook since it was founded in 2008. Standard location-sharing apps, such as Find My Friends on iOS devices and Google Family Link for Android, give a GPS pinpoint for users, which they can either choose to reveal to others or not. Life360 does that too, but – for a fee – you can activate premium features, such as being notified if someone in your circle has been involved in a car accident, or if they have driven above the speed limit or even gone beyond a set “geo-fenced” area.

There is a significant market for these features. Life360 is used by 32 million people in more then 140 countries; it’s currently the seventh most downloaded social-networking app on the App Store and its San Francisco-based company has been valued at more than $1bn. A survey of 4,000 parents and guardians in the UK in 2019 found that 40% of them used real-time GPS location tracking on a daily basis for their children; 15% said that they checked their whereabouts “constantly”.

That word “constantly” will send many teenagers into a cold sweat. At best, location-tracking apps can feel like an extension of helicopter parenting; at worst, they might feel like stalking. While all the apps tend to emphasise that they provide security for the child and peace of mind for the parent, some clearly go into deeper, more invasive territory. One, Find My Kids, allows you to activate the microphone on your child’s phone remotely, so you can eavesdrop on their interactions. OurPact gives you access to screenshots of your child’s online activity, “all encrypted for maximum safety”. Bark monitors and scans messages sent from a device, looking for issues such as “cyberbullying, sexual content, online predators, depression, suicidal ideation, threats of violence, and more”. The app claims to “cover” almost 6 million children, and has detected 478,000 “self-harm situations” and 2.5m “severe bullying situations”.

Location tracking has become a battleground in many families, bringing up issues of trust, privacy and personal growth. And while the discussion mostly relates to teens, it can start much earlier. Find My Kids, which launched in Russia in 2016 and is now worldwide, notes on its website: “Youd [sic] kid is too young for a smartphone? Use children’s GPS smartwatch!” In the US, the GizmoWatch 2 offers real-time location tracking and is aimed at children as young as three. KIDSnav is pitched at five-year-olds and up and offers GPS tracking and a built-in microphone to listen in on whatever is happening around your child.

All parents have to ask themselves what is best for their child. And Macy Smith and her family are in no doubt that location-tracking apps can be invaluable: in fact, after the accident, the family upgraded from Find My Friends to Life360, because of the crash detection and roadside assistance it offers.

“I know it’s hard for teenagers to give up your privacy,” Macy told ABC News, “but sneaking out and being places you don’t want your parents to know about is not worth being trapped under a car for seven hours.”

In a sense, location-tracking apps have crept up on us. Most parents would agree that planting a chip in your child that monitored their movements and vital signs – as depicted in the Arkangel episode of the dystopian, tech-anxiety series Black Mirror in 2018 – would be a little extreme. But smartphones have put similar technology in all of our pockets and, well, when it’s 12.30am and you want to go to bed and your kid’s not back from their friend’s house, it’s pretty difficult to resist.







Author: Tim Lewis


Photo: Watch their every step… it’s great for parents to know where their children are, but how do the children feel about it? Illustration: Lisa Sheehan/The Observer