A few years ago, I gave a talk about raising kids in the digital age at a public high school in an affluent suburb on Chicago’s North Shore. During the Q&A session, a father stood up and spontaneously shared that he wasn’t taking any chances: He tracked his son’s and daughter’s locations on their phones. In fact, he still tracked his eldest, 19, who was away at college in another state. If the Find My Friends tracking app suggested she wasn’t in class—he also had her class schedule—he would text her, demanding an explanation. Some parents in the audience grimaced at the invasion of this young woman’s privacy, but seemingly just as many nodded their heads: They were tracking their kids too.
Casual surveillance has become a given of modern parenting. For the past five years, as I researched my new book, Growing Up in Public, I heard from teens about parents tracking their locations, reading their texts, and checking up on their grades multiple times a day. (I offered parents and their children anonymity while reporting my book, to protect their privacy.) Meanwhile, the “family locator” geo-tracking app Life360 has more than 50 million active monthly users. In a study from 2016, when the Pew Research Center most recently studied this phenomenon, 61 percent of parents admitted to monitoring their kids’ internet activity, and almost half said they looked through their kids’ messages or call logs.
There are plenty of reasons parents might want to track their kids—safety, curiosity, a desire to connect—and plenty of ways to do it. Parents can surveil their kids, so they feel that they should: that doing so is simply good guardianship. It starts early, with apps like ClassDojo, which allow day-care and elementary-school teachers to document every moment of the school day. In the older grades, parents are encouraged to play an active role in their children’s education by monitoring grades and test scores. At open-house night at my son’s high school, we were told we should log in as an “observer” in Canvas, a schoolwork-management app, so we could see every assignment and quiz. And as adolescents become more autonomous—driving, spending more time with friends and less with parents—geo-tracking, looking over their shoulder into their assignment notebook, and reading their texts can all make parents feel like they are doing something to keep their children safe and close. The dad at my talk wasn’t an outlier: Location-tracking continues after kids become legal adults and leave the house, with almost 32 percent of college students reporting that their parents currently track their location in a soon-to-be-published University of North Carolina at Greensboro study.