GPS-tracking apps: Helicopter parenting or smart solution?

Location-tracking apps and devices now allow us to GPS-stalk our kids. Is their popularity a sign helicopter parenting has gone too far? Or, are they a smart, tech-savvy solution?

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

“In an online poll of Today’s Parent readers, 32 percent said they would never GPS-track their child. But a surprising majority of responders — 68 percent — said they would, for safety reasons.”

The longest 20 minutes of Marc Regimbal’s life was the time he lost track of his three-year-old son in an Ottawa shopping mall. Thankfully, after a frantic search, he found his child safe and sound. But that experience led Regimbal, a software developer and father of four, to create Childtrac, a personal GPS-monitoring service that lets a parent use his smartphone to track a child’s specific location in real time. On the Childtrac map, you can watch as the dot representing your child walks home from school or to a friend’s house. If anything unusual occurs — he stops for too long in one place, veers off course, or even gets separated from you at the grocery store — you can contact him directly through a little device clipped to his jacket or carried in a backpack. The Childtrac service runs $15 per month, in addition to the initial $300 cost of the hardware.

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GPS-tracking devices like Regimbal’s are part of a rapidly growing business sector: technology-enhanced people locators. Telecom research firm Berg Insight projects that by 2016, there will be 70-million users of people-tracking devices in North America and Europe. Life360, a downloadable smartphone monitoring system, has acquired 50-million users around the world since 2009. Many of the tools in this arsenal of tracking products are smartphone-based apps that are free, or nearly free, to download (usually from iTunes). Like the “Find my iPhone” feature, they use the same signals and networks as your cell phone or car GPS. (It’s also, incidentally, the same technology used in the ankle bracelets worn by inmates out on day parole.)

Other tracking options include Aircover Family Locator, a geo-fence app that allows a parent to create invisible boundaries, and then sends an alert when their kid goes outside of them. For young drivers, there’s iTrail, which can log a teenaged driver’s whereabouts. Amber Alert GPS, a competitor of Childtrac, is another comprehensive subscription-based service, founded by a father in Utah whose “aha” moment also happened after his young son wandered off. (In this case, the child was lost at an amusement park for 45 minutes.)

If these high-tech parenting tools seem futuristic — and a little too Big Brother for you — consider that we’re already living in an age of tracking. We track our pets (sometimes with chips implanted under their skin). We track our misplaced smartphones and our stolen laptops, our package deliveries and our lost luggage. Companies track merchandise and inventory. Why wouldn’t we want to know the location of our children, our most valuable — and irreplaceable — asset of all? Parents who use GPS-tracking systems explain that what these products really provide is an overall peace of mind — they aren’t using them to prevent any particular kind of accident or risk. And they don’t consider it another form of helicopter parenting.

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“Of course I want to know where my children are at all times,” says Jana Sinyor, a mom of two in Toronto. “That makes me feel safe.” She says that not knowing exactly where her kids are means her mind is automatically imagining the worst-case scenario. They’re only six and eight now, but she plans to use a locator app as soon as they’re old enough to be trusted with a smartphone — likely in about five years. A proponent of tracking services in general, Sinyor already uses the Find My Friends app to track her husband and her closest pals — many of whom are also tracking her through the same app. It may sound odd, but it’s not terribly different from social media enthusiasts who check in to different locations on Foursquare, or tell their whole Facebook network where they are and what they’re up to every minute of every day. Apps that automatically broadcast your location remove the status update or check-in step, and can be tailored to target a pre-set, select group of fellow users.

Laurie Faith, another mother of two in Toronto, sees this technology as a way to keep her kids happy and independent as they grow older, while reducing her own tendency to worry. Her kids are currently six and eight years old, but, like Sinyor, as soon as they’re “phone age,” she says she plans to track them through one of the smartphone apps. That way, if they’re outside playing on their own, or over at a friend’s house, she can loosen the leash a little. The alternative, she says, would be to curb their freedom.

It’s no surprise that entire business models have been built around parental anxieties. Worrying about our children’s well-being is a primary parental responsibility. Twelve years ago, Kay Green opened mypreciouskid.com, an unabashedly named online store that specializes in “child safety products” and baby gear. Back then, she offered only one GPS product. Now they have four different kinds of electronic tracking devices in their inventory, and she fields requests from parents who live all over the world.

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Green theorizes that her business has increased not because the world is getting scarier, and not because parents need to protect their kids from additional risks, but because we feel obligated to use these advancements in technology to safeguard our families. In other words, the availability of these systems – and the knowledge that, yes, there’s an app for that — is making the current generation of parents more fearful. Parents who are against tracking their kids might begin to feel old-fashioned, or even irresponsibly laissez-faire, when they see other parents sign up without a second thought.

Growing up in Edmonton, mom Amy Nugent says her fondest, most important childhood memories are of exploring the fields behind her house, unsupervised. “My most joyful moments as a kid often involved going where I wasn’t supposed to go – to the ravine to build forts, bike riding on the hill or looking for tadpoles.” Now that she has two children, Nugent wants to grant her kids the same formative experiences, and that sense of freedom. Using a tracking device to monitor her kids’ activities wouldn’t help, she says — it would only feed her parental anxiety. “What if the system cut out or went down? Would I bail out of my work meeting and call the school, or drive wildly to where I thought my girls should be?” The service may not be practical for the average parent, unless you don’t mind the constant distraction of a pulsing dot on your smartphone screen. And, she says, it might be hard for parents to accept, but kids need to make bad decisions sometimes. How else does a child grow up, if not by testing her own decision-making skills?

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Beverley Cathcart-Ross, a mother of four and the founder of The Parenting Network, an online hub of parenting advice and workshops, believes GPS-tracking devices are part of “a fear-based parenting strategy.” If the goal is to raise kids with intuition about what’s safe and what’s not, she says, these apps don’t make sense. “If you give your child a phone and then say, ‘Oh, and by the way, I’ve installed a GPS-tracking system on it,’ the message you’re sending is, ‘I don’t have confidence in your ability to manage your own safety.’” Cathcart-Ross stresses that parents shouldn’t let their own fears interfere with a child’s opportunity to learn — and exercise — good judgement. Our job is to help kids develop the skills and ability to make decisions on their own.

And then there’s the universal truth that kids always find a way to break the rules, if they really want to. Picture a birthday sleepover during which a group of tech-addicted tweens sneak out of the house, but leave their phones at home. The dots on their parents’ smartphone screens haven’t moved, providing a false sense of security. In this scenario, technology is serving the psychological needs of worried moms and dads, but it’s not really improving the safety of their children. In other words, an app isn’t going to keep our kids from harm, but common sense — and a healthy, trusting relationship with their parents — just might.

A version of this article appeared in our November 2013 issue with the headline “I’ve Got My Eye on You,” pp. 59-63.

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