“I went into a panic,” Curry says, and she immediately called Clare, only to wake her from a deep sleep. She was not on a gurney, but in her bed a few blocks from the hospital.
There are plenty of arguments for knowing where your kids are at a tap or swipe: It can make pickups easier and provide information in an emergency. You do not have to disrupt their activities — or driving — with a text or call. But as with so many things in the digital age, just because you can do something does not mean you should.
Tracking your kids can lead to unnecessary worry when technology goes awry, and it can erode trust and get in the way of letting your kids grow up, some experts say. That is a particular concern in the helicopter-parenting age, when some 20-somethings are taking their parents to job interviews and there is such a thing as Adulting School.
Life360, an app that lets family members communicate with and locate one another, says it saw 91 percent growth in users from 2016 to 2017 and reports that for much of the day on Christmas last year, it was getting a new registration every second. It now has 19 million active users.
But I spoke with some parents who have decided trust, privacy and the opportunity to learn from mistakes trump the sense of safety they might get from tracking their kids.
“There has to be some sort of trust,” says Nelson Lee, a Houston oil trader who has two boys, ages 14 and 15, and does not always know where they are. “If we need to get hold of them and they don’t answer, we’ll just kind of keep trying. Unless they do something to undermine their freedom, we don’t mess with it.”
Researchers are still catching up with technology use, so we do not have studies that show the specific effects of location monitoring. But some psychologists say Lee’s approach may be a healthier way to parent, especially when it comes to teenagers. That is true even when kids do not object to being tracked.
A central task of adolescence is what psychologists call “individuation” — the process of becoming independent, of recognizing you are not just your parents’ child, but a separate person, says Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and an expert on adolescence.
“Part of that is the knowledge that there are some things about you that your parents don’t know,” Steinberg says. “It’s an important feeling for children to have at that age.”
Secrecy is not necessarily a sign that a child is headed for trouble. Plus, part of the maturation process is learning to get yourself out of a jam. “In some ways we’re treating teens more like children, just because we have technology that allows us to,” says Pamela Wisniewski, director of the University of Central Florida’s Socio-Technical Interaction Research Lab, which studies how technology affects people. “We may be stunting their developmental growth by not giving them the chance to do some minimal risk-taking and make mistakes.”
Author and psychologist Jean Twenge writes in her book “iGen” that technology has made today’s teens more risk-averse and more accepting of people of other races and sexual orientations than previous generations. They are less likely to drink or engage in underage sex than millennials, she explains in the book. At the same time, younger people have higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide.
Steinberg advises parents not to track their kids unless they have a really good reason to do so. “And if you’re going to do it, tell your child you’re going to do it,” he says. Being sneaky about it is a breach of trust.
Before mobile phones, parents who were looking for their kids had to call all of their friends’ homes — and so had incentive to know who those friends were. Modern alternatives to tracking can similarly help build familial bonds. Lee and his wife have designed their house to be hangout-friendly, with a game room, trampoline and pool. It lets them be more connected to their children and their peers.
Curry eventually reconsidered her location preoccupation and decided not to keep digital tabs on her two younger children. “I wanted to give them some autonomy,” she says. She hopes it makes her kids more likely to go out, instead of staying at home watching videos and fiddling with social media.
“What about the old-fashioned way of giving them a curfew and waiting for them to come home and trusting that it will all work out?” she says. “Plus, I don’t want to be glued to my phone, watching this dot move around Manhattan. I want to have a life too.”
Sara Clemence is a freelance writer living in California. Find her on Twitter @SaraClemence.