News headlines about school shootings, missing person cases and random acts of violence can leave people feeling as though the threat of chaos is ever-present.
That can explain why, for some parents, the temptation to check in on a child is equally persistent.
Patrick McMullen, president of Three Square Market, a Wisconsin-based technology company known for microchipping employees, thinks his firm has developed a solution: a new app called “Mom I Am Ok.”
Designed for family members, the app will launch this month and allow parents to set agreed-upon “check-ins” with their children or loved ones. Those check-ins arrive in the form of push notifications asking whether the phone’s owner is safe. If the recipient doesn’t respond “yes” to the notification, the app can determine everywhere that person has been and deliver that information to loved ones or law enforcement officials. If people are separated from their phones, however, they can no longer be effectively tracked.
Using geofencing — a virtual boundary created for a real-world area — the app can also alert a parent when their child has left a particular area. That feature could be useful, McMullen said, if a teenage driver left his or her city limits, for example, triggering an alert for unsuspecting parents. The app will cost $9 per month, he said.
McMullen said his company’s technology is “nearly identical” to a program Three Square Market sells to law enforcement officials that allows them to monitor the movements of parolees without relying on ankle bracelets, which can be expensive and conspicuous. If they can monitor former inmates, McMullen said his team wondered, why not use the same technology to keep people safe?
“I have four daughters,” he said. “I want to know where my daughters are at if something ever happens to them.”
The Mom I Am Ok app is the latest among a growing list of affordable surveillance apps marketed to family members who want to keep tabs on their loved ones. Tens of millions of people use similar apps, many of which promise to help them track their children’s location in real time, as well as their recent movements, sometimes for up to 48 hours.
No longer reduced to tracking someone’s location, some surveillance apps are able to compile information about a relative’s behavior as well. The Family Tracker App includes a feature that gives a user the ability to monitor family members' driving habits. The feature includes regular reports with data showing instances of hard braking, texting and top speed at the end of each trip.
“If a family member hits the gas too hard coming off a red light or takes an onramp too aggressively, we’ll report instances of Rapid Acceleration,” the app notes.
Experts say these apps could be useful to police searching for a missing child, but could also be subject to abuse by overzealous authorities seeking evidence in a criminal case.
Police worldwide are in the midst of a technology revolution, said Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
She said she foresees potential conflicts arising if authorities use these kinds of apps to collect evidence against a missing teenager, for example, who may be involved in illegal activity.
“The moment the app becomes something that enables police to create evidence against an individual, I’m sure it will be challenged in court,” Haberfeld said. “I am sure that at certain points they’ll need a warrant to use this data to build an evidence trail.”
Embedded within most apps’ descriptions — sometimes explicitly, other times more subtlety — is a consistently dire message: The world is an increasingly dangerous place.
“Why leave things up to chance?” the app’s website asks parents.
“When I was a kid, I knew every home and every street for several miles in every direction,” McMullin said. “Now, we barely know our neighbors, the level of trust with communities has eroded, and I think people have changed and become very disjointed and distrustful.”
“The world is looking for solutions,” he added. “We have different things that block our kids from websites. If I don’t want my kid going to a part of town or someone’s house, why not use geofences to protect them in real life?”
Unlike microchips, with which Three Square Market is often associated, its Mom I Am Ok app does not rely on planting technology inside a user’s body. Instead, the app is wholly dependent on GPS in the user’s smartphone. If a user is separated from the device they can no longer be effectively tracked.
Lisa Damour, a psychologist and child development expert who writes a monthly column about adolescence for the New York Times, disputed the notion that the world is increasingly unsafe. But despite a national drop in violent crime, she said, surveys reveal that many adults feel less safe today than they did a decade ago.
At the same time, she said, mental health professionals have seen a spike among parents and children self-reporting feelings of anxiety in recent years.
Asked to comment on the Mom I Am Ok app, Damour said she thinks there is “a very high chance” that technology designed to reduce anxiety actually inflames feelings of unease in parents and children.
“Part of healthy functioning is to have a way to set worries to the side,” she said, referring to a process mental health experts refer to as “compartmentalization.” “So for a parent receiving constant notifications even though their child is okay, there is a hazard that those notifications are reminding them that their child might not be okay.”
“At the same time, the child who is being asked if they’re okay is at risk of being reminded all the time of some possibility that they could come to harm,” she added.
Damour’s solution: making sure adolescent teenagers are ready to “take the lead” in maintaining their own safety as they grow increasingly independent. That does not mean young people should be entirely cut off from adults, Damour said, noting that many teenagers have access to cellphones.
“But what keeps a teenager safe is the teenager,” she said. “Parents should be happy to take calls and texts from their teenager and act as a backup system.”