Tracking apps like Life360 are no substitute for real communication

Life360, one of the most popular safety and tracking apps, boasts 31 million users and an array of services, from location tracking and digital safety to driving safety and emergency assistance. According to its website, the app was first conceived in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The founders realized that “technology could have assisted response efforts and also allowed parents to better protect their families.”  

Though disaster assistance was their inspiration for the app, however, the ‘Disaster Response’ and ‘Medical Assistance’ features have since been relegated to a “Platinum Plan” higher membership tier. Most Life360 users rely on the app for something else: the ability to track family members, particularly children. The app not only gives parents the ability to see their child’s location at any given time, but also sends notifications when, for example, teen drivers are speeding. Life360 can also notify parents when their child gets to school, gets home, when they accelerate quickly, and even when their phone has low battery.  

Life360’s creators claim that “independence and safety can go hand in hand” and that their safety features allow families to “trust themselves and one another.” While this might be true in many cases, the use of the app raises a variety of important questions concerning trust, safety, privacy, and parenting. The app is not a substitute for communication between family members—but many parents use it as one.  

RE students whose parents use the app tend to speak about the feeling it produces in similar terms: it creates the uncomfortable sensation of someone constantly looking over your shoulder. “It’s just weird having your mother know where you are at all times,” said Victoria Porto ’22.  

Increasing digital monitoring from parents makes safety look more like surveillance and places tension on the parent-child relationship.”

Some students said the feeling was alleviated somewhat by the ability to see their parents’ location, but it didn’t make up for the discomfort. Porto, Katya Sucher ’22, and Nina Lampert ’22 all said that they would not recommend the app—at least not to teens. “To parents, yes. To teenagers, no,” said Porto. 

RE parent and Life360 user Ana Paula Freitas Valle P’22 said that she believes the app does indeed infringe upon her child’s privacy, but its benefits outweigh the costs. “I use the app as a security measure to know where my daughter is if I need to. I don’t check her all the time,” she said. “I’m not spying on her. It’s just in case. […] Late at night, most of the time when I try to communicate with her, she does not answer the phone.” Ms. Freitas Valle said she plans to continue using it when her child goes to college. She adds that her friends and family also use it on their kids, both in high school and college.  

Although parents like Ms. Freitas Valle have good reasons for implementing this sort of precaution, it is important to note that their concerns can often be resolved through better communication. Installing tracking apps because your child does not answer the phone or reply to texts will not resolve the lack of communication, and may even exacerbate it.  

If the parent is a ‘helicopter parent’ who constantly monitors what their child is doing at all times of the day, having this app will do nothing for either party and may even damage the relationship. Parents who implement location tracking out of distrust will also find this tactic useless, as the location services can be thrown off by simply disabling data, turning off the phone, or even putting it into airplane mode.  

While parents can sometimes tell when their child does this, leaving the phone in a designated location could also bypass the tracking. Kids could leave their phone at a friend’s house and go out without their parents ever knowing. Tracking children does not guarantee them not misbehaving; if anything, it might inspire them to seek out the many potential workarounds. 

We are the best-behaved generation of teenagers on record. According to a mass study and data compilation by CDC (Health, United States 2019), teen birth rates are at an all-time low. Teens are better at using contraceptives, and a decrease in illicit substances like alcohol, cigarettes, and cocaine has been tracked in high school seniors.  

Despite this fact, 16% of parents still track their children’s location, according to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center. 61% of parents check websites visited by their teens, and 60% check their teens social media. 

Teen safety should not come at the expense of their privacy. As young adults, teens should be allowed more autonomy and given more room to make their own decisions and, consequentially, grow from them. Increase in digital monitoring from parents makes safety look more like surveillance and places tension on the parent-child relationship and power dynamic.  

Monitoring children will not stop them from doing what they want and will not keep them any safer. Any short-term benefits will be outweighed by a long-term increase in distrust and resentment.  

Instead, parents should emphasize communication and better-organized plans. Having a system that allows teens to ask for permission and notify parents of any changes is just as effective and gives teens responsibility for their safety. Learning to be responsible for oneself is one of the most important skills, and it benefits both the parents and the child in the long term.  

If parents still feel that the best course of action is to keep using tracking apps like Life360, it is essential to have a conversation with the child and make sure they understand why the app is being installed. Parents should also emphasize that their children are still responsible for communicating. Tracking apps should only be used as a last resort when parents cannot contact their child instead of constantly checked. 

Parents have an understandable desire to keep their children safe, but the point of growing up is becoming more independent. Tracking apps like Life360 make it too easy to ignore this milestone of responsibility.