Tracking devices: useful, harmless fun, hindering independence or dangerous?

Or all of the above?

I was asked to contribute to BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour on the topic of using tracking apps or devices for keeping an eye on teenagers. As always with radio, there’s not time for anything like a full discussion, made worse on this occasion by technical problems meaning that I missed the whole intro to the piece and 99% of what my fellow contributor said! Arghhhh. Technology…

Anyway, here’s more of what I think.

I have no quibble about many uses of these tracking apps (as long as they are used with full transparency and consent, otherwise it’s a whole different conversation.) I can see practical benefits and that it is possible for really well-thought-through usage actually to increase a young person’s ability to be independent. Those of you who use them will know which precise benefits you find. What I want to do is ask you to question honestly whether there are some downsides that may be worth considering. In suggesting these downsides, I’m not judging you but I am suggesting that these points are worth considering because they certainly apply to some families.

Is the tracking age-appropriate? What might be genuinely useful and right for a child just entering secondary school, or just walking home from school for the first times without you, might well not be right for teenagers who now need more genuine responsibility. There are no age rules here, as each teenager is different and faces different risks or challenges, but you’d do well to err on the side or giving them more responsibility than less.

See my points about independence below.

Is there a risk to friendship groups? At some point, it’s possible that your tracked teenager will find that friends don’t like the fact that essentially they are also being tracked by you. Your teenager may come under pressure to evade your tracking or risk losing friendships. Friendships and peer status are extraordinarily important and powerful drivers during this life stage, as your teenager is rightly seeking independence. That is, independence from you.

Does your teenager have a right to some secrecy or a duty to tell you everything? How can your teenager become truly self-reliant if actually relying fully on you?

What if your teenager would sometimes like not to be tracked but feels unable to tell you in case you suspect they plan to do something risky? What if they have no intention of planning something risky or that you disapprove of, but they’d just like to be private for a while?

Is every use you make of the tracking app genuinely designed to help your child grow up (which involves independence) or is it to make your life easier or more comfortable?

Is there full consent? If not, does this tell your child that you don’t really trust them? Of course, you don’t fully trust them because they’re young and you know they are typically (though not always) less able to predict consequences of actions so they might make a mistake. But how will they learn not to make mistakes without making them?

Is the app really there to make you worry less? Does it? Always? Doesn’t it also make you worry more, because you’re tempted to keep checking?

Does the knowledge that your child is nearly home alter your behaviour? For example, do you then open the door for them so they don’t have to get their keys out? What did their last servant die of, for goodness’ sake??

 

How will you learn to let go unless you practise doing so? In the same way as your child won’t learn to be independent, manage risks or be resourceful without practice, you can’t suddenly let go without trying it out.

Does your use of the app genuinely allow them to do things you otherwise wouldn’t be able to let them do? Or does it just protect them more while they’re doing it and, again, make you feel better? Are they really growing independence through the app? (They might be but they might not be: it depends on the detail.)

Are there some other ways to allow your child more independence, through practice, education, negotiation, boundaries?

Do you believe the GPS is accurate? It might not be. Could this lead to false accusations? I use a GPS tracker when I’m running and mine once recorded that I’d run around some fields and along a lane, when I’d done no such thing. Most people would – wrongly – have believed the tracker, wouldn’t they? “Honest, Mum, I was never in that lane!”

Do you check the app too often? I would suggest, respectfully, that “too often” means “any time that my teenager isn’t actually late and I’m properly worried.”

Do you have real reason to worry that your teenager is going to do something wrong or foolish or risky? If so, the problem is not going to be solved by your tracking app because your teenager will be able to evade it. Tracking without trust is most likely to lead to worse problems. For example, if your teenager evades your location tracking, a really dangerous situation might arise which you then couldn’t manage. Transparency, discussion and communication are always the best options. I’m in no way saying this is always easy: I do know enough about adolescence and (the vastly varied) relationships between teenagers and parents to realise that sometimes communication and trust do break down. But I don’t believe a tracking app is the answer to that.

Is there a risk that your teenager might become more secretive? Having secrets is normal and not unhealthy. We should be allowed privacy, shouldn’t we? You don’t install a camera in your teenager’s bedroom because you know they should be allowed that privacy. Tracking apps, if used in certain ways, undermine that. And your teenager is likely then to find other ways to keep secrets.

Are you using this app to prevent risk-taking? Many teenagers aren’t risk-takers but it’s true that they are the most risk-taking age group. But risk-taking itself is not bad! Taking risks is how we aim high, try things we might fail at, stretch ourselves and for many people it’s how to feel alive. If you do have a highly risk-taking teenager and you use these apps for that reason. your risk-taking teenager is most likely to find ways around it and possibly take “worse” risks. We learn to make good decisions about risk by making decisions about risk and learning from mistakes. (I realise that this is easy to say when my children are now grown up and I realise that some risks are dangerous, even fatal. But I’m afraid risks will still be taken. Your app won’t stop it.)

Who are you doing this for? So many of the conversations I’ve read and been part of about this suggest that too often it’s for the parent, far more than the young person. If it’s genuinely useful, fun, consensual, well thought-through and doesn’t interfere negatively with all the normal, healthy, natural things we should be spending time on, and it’s genuinely moving your family towards healthy independence from and trust of each other, I have no quibbles, as I say.

Might you be destroying trust? At first, and with younger adolescents, it may well not be a problem, as it’s easy to argue that you’re doing it to teach them to look after themselves. But at some point your teenager may very well start top doubt that you trust them. And thereby darkness lies. This is the main reason why I think mutual consent is paramount.

Independence and the prefrontal cortex – the point of adolescence

Teenage brains and risk, why risk is importantIn evolutionary or biological terms, adolescence, which happens in all cultures, is about moving a human towards independence. It’s about moving them from being the protected, dependent baby and child towards eventually being an unprotected, independent adult, able to make generally good decisions and live independently, with their own values, mores and ambitions. For humans, more than other mammals (at least some of which we know also have adolescence) this is a long and complex process, because human intelligence and potential are vast and society complex. Every individual will do this differently – the clue is in the word “individual” – and some will find the transition harder than others.

Some parents will find it harder than others, too. Crucially, teenagers have a set of biological drivers (hormones and brain changes) as well as peer pressure, which is also partly biologically driven, pulling them towards independence. Parents, however, are programmed to protect from the moment their child is born and nothing happens to a parent brain that drives them to step back once their child reaches adolescence. So the drive the independence comes more from young people than their parents. Our job is to watch for signs of burgeoning independence and guide to forward, not hold it back.

Parents worry. It’s kind of in the job spec. Trust me when I say it doesn’t stop: my older daughter is 32 and has just had a premature baby. I’m worrying like heck – bout her more than the baby, adorable though he is and deeply though I already love him. I’m also wanting to be on the phone to her all the time, helping, fixing, supporting, advising. Or even hopping on a train every other day to go and fix things in person. But I have to make myself not do that. I have to trust that she, the young woman I brought up to be independent, can do this with her partner and with her own strength and skills and common sense. Now, I do know that worrying about my grown-up daughter, who is no longer my responsibility, is not the same as worrying about a 16-year-old who is negotiating parties, pressures and peers, risks and responsibilities.

But how does that 16-year-old (or 14, 15, 17 etc etc year old) get to become an independent, critical-thinking, problem-solving, self-made 32-year-old if her parents don’t let her get their on her own?

And if your teenager becomes an adult but you’ve always done everything for them, contributing too much to their success, is that success going to feel fully theirs? No, when you stand too close you invade their stage; you take their glory; you undermine what they could have done for themselves.

I call it the difference between helicopter and safety-net parenting. A helicopter parent hovers, waiting for a sign that a Bad Thing might be about to happen, swooping down to prevent the problem, to avoid falls or failure. A safety-net, on the other hand, is not there to prevent falls or failure: it’s there to allow falls and failure, to allow them to happen in a way that means the person can pick themselves up and try again, seeing what went wrong and trying not to let it go wrong the next time.

Over-protection does no favours. It might make you feel better and it might even make you feel you’re doing your job well as a parent, but a parent’s job is about more than keeping their child safe.

Independence necessitates a breaking away, a cutting of apron strings. It can’t happen without. Of course, it’s a parent’s job and right to decide when those apron strings should be cut and how to do it. There are no rules and it’s not easy to get that right. I don’t imagine anyone gets it right every time. I know I worried too much and I might have been tempted to use these apps if they’d been around. As I say, I can see their legitimate use and I can see that sometimes they could also be harmless fun, with no negative consequences. But I hope I’d have had the wisdom to question my usage carefully and never to let a piece of tech replace the vital importance of communication and building trust.

Are we altering the development of the human prefrontal cortex?

When the first edition of Blame My Brain was published in 2005, for which I was using research from the late 1990s and early 2000s, scientist believed that the average age for completion of development on the human prefrontal cortex (pfc) was 23. By the time the most recent edition was written, they were saying late 20s, or even later. Now, it could be that they were wrong in the first place. But equally it could be that societies like ours have been doing something that has delayed this development, delayed the moment at which we can call someone independent. (The pfc is what we use to make decisions, exercise control, have moral values, think about future consequences, resisting temptation: in short, be an independent human.) Could it be that by not giving teenagers independence, responsibility, the chance to do things for themselves and take risks, we are contributing to or even causing this delay? It could indeed be. We don’t have any comparable evidence from cultures that don’t use technology as much as we do and who still give their adolescents more adult responsibility so we can’t be sure. But it’s a powerful thought.

If tracking apps are part of restricting responsibility and independence from young people, I’m on balance against them.

But tracking apps are here and you might want to use them. If so, I’d say do so in the context of full consent and well thought-through positive use, if you can do it without holding back your teenager’s genuine growth into an independent adult. I urge you to ask yourself the questions above and make your decision with your fully-developed adult prefrontal cortex, capable of looking ahead, making good decisions and resisting temptation.

As always, let technology be your tool, not your tyrant.


I write and speak to audiences around the world, whether teenagers, parent or professionals. I’m pretty booked up for most months in 2020 but don’t be afraid to ask. Please see here first.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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