Tracking apps: Is it ok to spy on your kids?

by My Kent Family reporter

Increasing numbers of parents are using GPS tracking apps on their phones so they can always tell exactly where their children are.

Chef Jamie Oliver has admitted to using one of the apps, Life360, to keep an eye on the eldest of his five children, saying it's a 'brilliant' way to check where daughters Poppy Honey, 16, and Daisy Boo, 15, are.

But using this type of surveillance on adults might be considered harassment, and while they may give peace of mind to anxious parents, the counter-argument is that they're not helping young people learn to be independent and keep safe on their own.

Jeremy Todd, chief executive of the parenting charity Family Lives, says his organisation is concerned about a parent feeling the need to track a young person, pointing out that they should instead be talking about any concerns with their child, establishing how they might be addressed, and discussing what a child might do if something went wrong while they were out.

A tracking app can offer peace of mind for both parents and children
A tracking app can offer peace of mind for both parents and children

"We're concerned that there's a false sense of safety - just because a parent knows where a child is, doesn't mean the child's safe or that the concerns a parent has about their child's wellbeing have been addressed," he warns.

"We don't want it to be something that prevents parents talking to their children about being streetwise.

"Parents need to allow their children to grow up to be independent, and there's a sense that this has the potential to prevent that happening in a healthy and natural way. How would we have felt as teenagers knowing our parents always knew where we were? Part of being a teenager is exactly the opposite of that."

Jeremy says tracking raises important questions around consent, suggesting some parents may feel that because they pay for their child's mobile phone, they're entitled to know where their child is all the time.

There is a danger that young people may respond to being tracked by becoming increasingly secretive
There is a danger that young people may respond to being tracked by becoming increasingly secretive

"You're entitled to establish what the parameters are around communication with your son or daughter, but that's not the same as tracking them," he says.

"The most important thing is having a conversation about communication - about parents ringing kids at the right time, and about children picking up when they do - but the notion of tracking someone feels uncomfortable."

But despite having such conversations with their children, some parents may still want to use a tracking app. So what are the pros and cons of using such technology?

Increasing numbers of parents are using GPS tracking apps on their phones so they can always tell exactly where their children are
Increasing numbers of parents are using GPS tracking apps on their phones so they can always tell exactly where their children are

THE ADVANTAGES

Peace of mind for parents

Sten Kirkbak, co-founder of the tracking watch phone XPLORA says the main benefit of tracking a child, for the parent, is instant peace of mind.

"For example, parents no longer need to ring their child continuously, thus causing them to feel embarrassed, or interrupting their play and exploration. Location tracking can also ease unnecessary worry if a child doesn't answer the phone straight away. Through GPS tracking, a parent can receive a quick update and put their mind to rest."

Gives kids more freedom

Sherlock actress Amanda Abbington has said she installed a tracking app on her 12-year-old son Joe's phone, pointing out it gives him more freedom because knowing where he is means she's more relaxed about -letting him go further afield.

The tracking watch phone XPLORA
The tracking watch phone XPLORA

Reassurance for children

Location tracking can also be reassuring for the child, particularly if they get lost. This is especially useful if a child wanders off in a crowded place, says Sten.

"Knowing their parents can locate them at any given moment can alleviate the immediate sense of panic a child feels when they realise they're lost."

He points out that this peace of mind is relevant to older children too, especially in the wake of new research by Girlguiding UK that shows nearly two-thirds of 13 to 21 year-olds either feel unsafe, or know someone who is fearful of walking home alone.

DISADVANTAGES

Kids may become more secretive

Young people may respond to being tracked by becoming increasingly secretive and flouting the surveillance by, for example, leaving their phone at a friend's house so their parents think they're there.

They don't become streetwise

Young people run the risk of not learning to be -independent and safe on their own.

Sten Kirkbak
Sten Kirkbak

Internet and social media access

Children need a smartphone for their parents to install a tracking app, but this can expose them to the potential dangers associated with social media and the internet such as cyberbullying, inappropriate contact with strangers and unsupervised access to inappropriate information.

Trust issues

If they're being tracked, young people may feel their parents think they can't be trusted. By contrast, if they feel they are trusted, such responsibility can help them behave in a trustworthy manner.

Sten says: "Teenagers might feel they're mistrusted and controlled by 'helicopter' parents. Make sure the discussions you have with them are transparent and always listen to their feedback.

"In my view, the use of these apps should always be a two-way thing. Jamie Oliver is transparent about the fact that his children can also see where he is, so that they too can locate him. This means no-one is being 'spied' upon; rather, the whole family is connected, able to easily see and locate each other if needed."

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