“I just got a notification you turned your location off,” the mother replied. “Turn it back on please.”
Life360 is a tracking app that parents use to monitor their kids — everything from where they are to how fast they are driving — and as such, it is either a safety precaution or a tattletale, depending on your perspective. As Wired noted earlier this summer, teens on TikTok have turned life under Life360 into a meme. One video, with more than half a million views, tells teens how to change their phone settings to trick the app into freezing their location (the advice is accompanied by the sneaky music from Luigi’s Mansion). Others have made videos meme-ing the despair of having your parents find out about the surveillance-dodging app. One asks viewers to like the video if they hate Life360. It has more than 130,000 likes.
As much as technology has shaped the behaviors and expectations of Generation Z, it’s done the same to their parents, who can monitor communications and control how much time their kids spend on apps or games with eerie exactitude. Gen Z is now entering adulthood, and both its members and their parents are reckoning with the consequences of a world in which you can, with an app, always know exactly what your child is up to. Some parents are opting to keep this tether as their kids enter college.
The Life360 stories shared online by teens and young adults depict a range of experiences. Some are logical extensions of a world of technology-infused parenting, where phones are simultaneously central to teenagers’ social lives and tools of surveillance. For instance, some parents will only turn over the car keys if their newly licensed 16-year-old consents to being monitored by a paid version of the app that tracks driving speed. Other stories show how the app can amplify and extend over-controlling parenting into young adulthood. In some cases, young people have described their parents using Life360 in ways that resemble emotional abuse.
One viral Reddit post, which appeared on r/advice, was from a 19-year-old man who said his conservative, religious parents forced him to download Life360 after he came out to them as gay. In another anonymous post, someone claiming to be a college sophomore lamented the fact that his parents called him whenever they saw something on the app that made them suspect he was doing something they wouldn’t like. “I feel that this is really unhealthy for both my parents and me,” that person wrote.
The exchange between the mom and the son who turned off the app got more than 32,000 upvotes (making it super viral, for Reddit). It prompted Chris Hulls, the CEO and founder of Life360, to make himself available for an “Ask Me Anything” discussion on the site — Reddit’s version of a news conference, where anyone can submit a question anonymously. Hulls, who introduced himself as Life360′s “misunderstood” CEO, was peppered with questions about Life360′s implications for abusive families. Abuse “has not come up as much of an issue” before, he replied.
The Q&A left many readers unsatisfied. In an email to The Washington Post, Hulls described the critics of the app, and his Reddit performance, as “a small vocal group which doesn’t really reflect the sentiment of our entire user base.” The CEO cited several examples of tracking services helping parents find kids in emergency situations and said he believed the user experience was “overwhelmingly” positive, citing reviews of Life360 on Google and Apple’s app stores.
As to whether the app might exacerbate abusive behavior, Hulls acknowledged there is a risk. “Although rare, if the app is being used improperly, we have a responsibility to help and prevent that,” he told The Post, adding that Life360 planned to provide access to an “anonymous hotline” for users who need help.
The pros and cons of tracking children once they leave home is a frequent topic of discussion on Grown and Flown Parents, a closed Facebook group for parents of high school- and college-age children with more than 130,000 members. Several members who agreed to answer questions said they like the “peace of mind” it gives them about their kids’ safety.
Anna Lee Baird, who lives in Raleigh, N.C., said she uses it on all her children, including her daughter Cameron, who is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “As she’s gone off to college, I really never had a conversation with her about what that meant for Life360,” Baird said. “I just didn’t remove her; she didn’t ask me to.” She said she doesn’t check the app very much and it’s mainly there just in case of an emergency.
“Because my parents don’t track me with the intention of micromanaging me, but for safety, I don’t have an issue with it,” Cameron Baird told The Post via text.
Michele Webb said she had to wean herself off constantly checking on her daughter with the Life360 app. “When she first got her license, I was a stalker,” she said. Her daughter has since gone to college, and Webb says she’s gotten better about it: “Now I only use it if I know she’s traveling and I want to see if she’s made it to where she said she’s going.”
Some parents in the online group said they were wary of tracking apps. Amanda Nichols, who lives in Cleburne, Tex., said she didn’t plan to use tracker apps on her 18-year-old. ” My son is a grown adult,” she wrote, “and I am not about to track his moves while he is out trying to find his way in this world.”
When parents and kids already have a relationship that includes a degree of privacy, trust and independence, the downsides of tracking apps like Life360 don’t necessarily seem like that big of a deal. But on boards like r/insaneparents and r/raisedbynarcissists, teens and young adults are sharing the darker side effects of the technology.
Ivy, a freshman at a religious university in the Midwest, wrote a post on Reddit saying that Life360 was extending a troubled childhood with controlling parents. She told The Post that her parents insist she has Life360 turned on at all times at college as a condition of paying for her to go. (Ivy is a nickname; the woman didn’t want to be fully identified for fear of complicating an already difficult relationship. For this reason, The Post did not contact her parents.)
Ivy sent The Post screen shots that appeared to show messages from her mother.
“I hear you went to climb a mountain today. I did not see it on Life360,” Ivy’s mother appeared to write in one of the messages. “I have asked you to carry your phone with you. It looks like you are wanting to begin paying for your own rent, tuition/textbooks, and living expenses.”
Another screen shot showed nearly two dozen emails from her mother in the span of a few hours, which Ivy said she received after turning off her location on the app.
“It was supposedly for my safety, she said, “but I never had the option to refuse.”
Her story was one of many that have found their way to Reddit. John Caffaro, a professor at the California School of Professional Psychology and an expert in family and sibling abuse, viewed several of the posts about Life360 and other tracking services on r/insaneparents and other discussion boards. “Many of the Reddit posts appeared to drift perilously close to what normally constitutes emotional abuse,” Caffaro told The Post in an email.
“In the hands of an abusive parent, a tracking app like Life360 may have serious implications for a child’s interpersonal adjustment,” Caffaro wrote. When constant parental surveillance continues into young adulthood, he said, it can make it harder for young adults to make friends and “contribute to feelings of loneliness.”
One woman, who said she was a 21-year-old college senior, told The Post that Life360 has caused her significant anxiety. (Fearing retaliation from her parents, she too asked not to be named.) The app makes her feel like she’s not making her own decisions, she said, and that makes her feel helpless. “I feel like I don’t know how to do anything at all on my own,” she said.
Many parents install tracking apps with good intentions, said Stacey Steinberg, a law professor at the University of Florida who has studied how technology impacts raising families and privacy. “We don’t want our kids to screw up,” she said. “We don’t want them to get hurt. Technology offers us new ways to feel like we are protecting them — both from others and from themselves.
“But kids need autonomy from their parents, especially when they reach adulthood,” Steinberg added. “If we want our kids to trust us, if we want our kids to believe they are capable of making wise decisions, then our actions need to show it. Valuing their privacy is one way to do so.”