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Parental Control: Some Say Online Location Tracking Might Be ‘Invasive,’ ‘Disconcerting’

Mary Chappell | The PhoenixSome Loyola students are tracked on location based apps by parents and friends. Although the apps can be used for safety reasons, some parents use them to keep tabs on their adult children.
Listen to Kayleigh Padar discuss this story on The Phoenix’s news podcast, The Byline.

Loyola junior Samad said he was studying in the Information Commons (IC) when he decided to take a quick break and grab dinner with a friend. That’s when he said he received a call from his mother, who accused him of lying to her about studying all night. 

The 20-year-old said his mother tracks his phone’s location, even though she lives hours away in St. Louis. 

“The fact that I am living away from home and I’m 20 years old and I’m still being tracked is sad,” Samad said. “If I were to turn it off, she would be upset and she would be like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you being sketchy like this?’”

Samad is one of the Loyola students who say their parents track their location — using different tracking apps such as Life360 or Find My Friends — in order to keep tabs on what they’re doing. The Phoenix removed the last names of certain students to protect their families’ privacy. 

Life360 is a “location-based service” that groups can use to track each other’s locations. The app is free, but users can also purchase a subscription that adds extra features such as crash detection and a “driver report” which tracks speed. Find My Friends is a similar tracking app with fewer features only available on Apple devices. 

Amy Bohnert, a Loyola psychology professor who’s done research on adolescent development, said parents tracking their kids is a new phenomenon due to the increased abilities of technology. 

“For parents, I think [using apps to track their kids is] partly driven by a need to feel reassured and know what their kid is doing when they can’t see them all the time,” Bohnert said. “For kids, I would imagine … it would be kind of disconcerting. I don’t think the kid would feel reassured by that, I think they would find it challenging.” 

Nadia Zia, a Loyola parent and physician, said starting to use location tracking was a “family decision.” She said she mainly uses it as a way to communicate and checks where her family members are if they aren’t responding or aren’t home on time. 

“Sometimes children take it as parents trying to spy on them or trying to control them, but really I think every parent’s number one concern is their child’s safety and that’s where this comes from,” Zia said. 

First-year Natalie, another student who says she’s tracked by her parents, said being tracked feels “invasive.” She said it makes her question if her parents trust what she tells them when they double-check her location. 

“I think that it’s kind of like showing that they don’t trust me or they don’t believe what I’m saying is true,” said Natalie, an 18-year-old studying nursing. “That’s frustrating for me because trust has to go both ways. I can’t really place full trust in them if they don’t place full trust in me.” 

Some students learned to handle being tracked by learning to manipulate the various apps in order to keep their locations from their parents. 

Madison, a first-year studying nursing, said her parents often checked her location in high school and she resorted to leaving her phone at friends’ houses or downloading the app on another device and leaving it where she wanted her parents to think she was. 

“It was almost like I had to sneak around more than I would if I didn’t have [the tracking app],” Madison, 18, said. “I probably made more stupid decisions in high school trying to go around the tracking system than I would have if I wasn’t tracked.”

Manal Haroon, a junior studying marketing and Zia’s daughter, said her parents tracked her more closely in high school, but continued tracking her for safety reasons when she went to college. She said they don’t try to control where she is anymore, but they’ll check the app every once in a while or if she’s not responding to texts or calls. 

“If something happens seriously, they should be able to see where I am,” Haroon, 20, said. “I let my friends see my location and it’s not like they’re going to try and control it. As soon as your parents get to the point where they feel like they don’t have to control your location anymore, then I feel like it shouldn’t be a big deal.” 

Rebekah, a sophomore studying psychology and statistics, said her parents wanted to track her location, but she won’t allow them to because she wants privacy while she’s at school. Instead, she said she allows her friends to track her which makes both she and her parents feel more comfortable. 

“I still do have people looking out for me,” Rebekah said. “If something did go wrong, I’d rather someone close by knew something was wrong rather than my parents, ten hours away, who can’t really do anything.” 

Rebekah said she decided to let her friends track her because she’s heard lots of stories about women being harassed or experiencing crime. 

Bohnert said there’s an important difference between tracking and monitoring. Tracking is when parents check their child’s location to try and control their child, but monitoring is when parents keep tabs on their children’s location without trying to control them, Bohnert said. 

Bohnert said parents who started tracking their kids in high school and then continued tracking into college have probably already discussed boundaries surrounding location tracking. She said parents and children should have conversations about when it might be appropriate to use a tracking app. 

Samad said after the incident with his mother when she realized he wasn’t at the IC, they had a “huge fight” about it the next time he went home. He said they talked it out and made up after she apologized. 

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