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Mom and dad aren’t in the car, but they’re still watching

Parents are using new apps to spy on their teenage drivers. Teens are fighting back.

By Glenn McDonald

Steve B., an auto industry executive in Michigan, has two teenage drivers in the house, with a third on the way — and he’s not taking chances.

Steve, who doesn’t want his full name used for reasons that will soon become clear, has deployed a complex system of surveillance. With his teenagers’ knowledge, he outfitted their phones with Google’s Family Link, an app that monitors activity online and off. Family Link uses location tracking technology that informs Steve of the kids’ locations at all time, so long as they’re carrying their phones.

But he’s also deployed a secret backup system.

“I use a couple of little black GPS boxes to keep track of them when they’re out and about,” Steve says. “I hide them in the trunk crevices.” The teens, he says, don’t know they’re being watched by a second, secret location tracking system. 

The moment a teenager hits the road, driver’s license in hand, is an inflection point for any family. It sets up an inevitable collision between a teen’s need for independence and a parent’s instinct for protectiveness. The scenario has resulted in the time-honored ritual of the “check-in” — a plea for a phone call, a text, anything, to announce a safe arrival at the final destination.

But a wave of innovation has disrupted that traditional exchange and put the power instead in technology. Cars can now come equipped with surveillance systems that not only share a teen driver’s location, but alert parents to how fast the car is going or even limit the speed a car can attain.  General Motors’ Teen Driver Technology, for example, allows parents to access a “report card” at the end of any given trip, which flags instances in which the car’s acceleration was excessive, or when the collision avoidance system was engaged. Cellphone apps come with family subscription services that bundle options — location tracking, Internet monitoring, texting-while-driving alerts — into one system that parents can access at any time. The check-in has become a constant, watchful eye.

Teenagers, naturally, chafe at the idea of being monitored all the time. Worried parents see the tech as a kind of miracle anti-anxiety prescription. Disagreements ensue. As the young people say: It’s an issue.

In the last 10 years or so, location-tracking services like Google Life – essentially, an expansion of the “friend finder” feature built into most smart phone operating systems — have become increasingly popular as a way for families to keep track of one another’s physical locations. These phone-based finder options go back nearly a decade, to Apple’s “Find My Friends” feature in iOS 8 in 2011, although a case can be made that the psychological roots are even older. The popularity of “baby cam” technologies peaked in the early 2000s, with the advent of webcams, and they have programmed a whole generation of new parents to expect surveillance options on their progeny. (Bonus trivia: The first dedicated baby monitor — radio-powered! — dates back to 1937.)

“To automatically assume that extra surveillance will lead to greater care is something I think we need to really stop and think about.”

Joel Reynolds, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University

Taskin Padir, a professor of engineering at Northeastern University, says it’s perfectly predictable that monitoring systems have grown along with kids and parents.

“As we become a more connected world, we use more and more technologies — in our hands, in our pockets, in our vehicles,” Padir says.

In fact, he says, monitoring technology dovetails with the development of the automotive industry’s major recent initiative — self-driving cars.

“Fully autonomous vehicles are not here yet, but the early features are in vehicles — like collision detection, following distance or lane tracking,” he says. “These also double as ways to make teen driving safer.”

These days, no family monitoring technology is as pervasive — or, as teenagers might see it, invasive — as the smartphone-based Life360, which currently has more than 25 million active users across the globe. The app, which launched in 2008, integrates what you might call “perpetual check-in” features, enabling parents to check on a teen’s driving speed in real time and get detailed reports on any high-speed or hard-braking events.

Parents can call up a detailed map tracking the exact movement of their teens at the end of an evening — where they went, when, and how long they stayed. Life360 stresses overall safety — it bundles together a whole suite of online and offline safety features, like identity theft protection and 24/7 roadside assistance.

“In the modern world, using technology to keep family members safe is becoming the norm,” says Chris Hulls, founder and CEO of Life360. Hulls notes that Life360 was among the first location-tracking services to specifically expand into teen driving safety, offering crash detection and driver reports. Automakers and even insurance carriers have since developed similar app-based systems.

Hulls and other app developers, automakers, and insurance carriers stress the family safety aspect of location tracking technology. Their customers are concerned parents, after all, and they’re highly motivated.

But many teenagers, naturally, object. For several years now, teens have waged a kind of percolating online protest against Life360, using the sharpest weapon they possess — memes. Click around the social media app TikTok and you’ll find the hashtag #banlife360 and an ocean of memes protesting Life360 in particular and parental surveillance in general. One common and nicely representative sentiment: “If you have this app, your life sucks.”

In 2019, teens used TikTok to launch a collective effort to lower Life360’s ratings in the Google and Apple app stores, an effort they hoped would make the entire system disappear.

“I think it’s completely unfair and detrimental to teenagers if their parents use this app on them regularly,” a 16-year-old Texan told Wired magazine that year. “I spend most of my time texting my parents about what’s going on rather than spending time with my friends.”

The furious campaign against Life360 eventually resulted in Hulls making his own TikTok videos, in a good faith effort to meet teens’ concerns in the arena of their choice. With a courageous into-the-breach maneuver, Hulls engaged the teenagers in back-and-forth Tik Tok exchanges and posted hundreds of lighthearted mini-videos himself.

On the programming side, Life360 also responded by offering new features like a “Bubbles” option, designed as a kind of compromise between parents and teens. It indicates the general area of the teenager’s phone, but not the precise location.

This kind of face-off — and the attendant PR scramble — was inevitable, says ethicist Joel Reynolds, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University and senior research scholar at the school’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics.

The newest teen surveillance technology is “a big change,” Reynolds says. “Location technologies offer new options for safety and security, but they allow you to track your children in ways that simply were not possible for all of human history up until this point.”

To Reynolds, the most worrisome aspect of the technology is the effect it may have on the relationship between a parent and a child. If a teenager interprets a parent’s desire to track them as a lack of trust, Reynolds says, it can fundamentally undermine the relationship. What’s more, he says, location tracking does not necessarily equate to better parenting.

“These new tools are marketed to parents as a way to increase their capacity to care for their child,” Reynolds says. “But what they really mean is increasing their capacity to monitor and to surveil their child. To automatically assume that extra surveillance will lead to greater care is something I think we need to really stop and think about.”

Northeastern’s Padir is an expert twice over on these matters. As co-director of the RIVeR Lab (Robotics and Intelligent Vehicles Research Laboratory), Padir is well-versed in emerging vehicular technology. More importantly, perhaps, he’s a dad with a 17-year-old driver in the house.

Padir and his family have been using the Life360 service for more than a year. “Now we have these new ways to check in,” he says. “It’s a better experience for both the parents and the teenagers.”

But the family arrangement is explicit: The teenager can surveil his parents, too. “I have it, my wife has it, and our son has it,” Padir explains, calling in via Zoom with his son Gencay, 17. “So anyone can track anyone. That was part of the deal that we had, that we can all track each other.”

The Padirs convened a family conversation before adopting the Life360 system, in which the parents stressed to Gencay that they would not be checking on his location at all times.

“It’s about peace of mind,” his father says. “It’s for those times when there’s a five-minute delay and we just want to check where he is, if he’s stuck in traffic or something.”

Gencay says he sometimes checks up on mom and dad, too.

“For me, it’s just convenient,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll wake up later in the day and my parents aren’t home. I can check and see where they are.”

For Steve B., monitoring his teens is ultimately about safety and is, in part, a practical issue: His family lives in a relatively remote rural area, and the GPS system works independent of cellular service, which can get spotty. The parental benefits of full-on 24/7 location tracking, he says, far outweigh any concerns about his relationship with his teens.

“I’ve found that just using the phones is unreliable,” Steve says. “They could ditch the phone or turn it off and just disappear. They don’t, because they’re mostly good kids, but the peace of mind from the GPS is so superior.”  

He admits he’s endured some pushback from his kids, over the years.

“They feel it’s an attack against them trust-wise, or an invasion of privacy,” he says. “But God forbid something awful happens, they’re going to want for me to know exactly where they are so I can be their lifeline.”

If it’s any consolation, Reynolds assures us that the core of the dilemma has been plaguing humankind forever.

“For a long time, in political philosophy, there’s been a distinction made between liberty and security,” he says. “And often when you prioritize security, it will come at the cost of liberty —and vice versa.”

Changing times, and changing technologies, are challenging parents to find the proper balance, Reynolds says. He appreciates the Padirs’ approach to the debate — communication, as always, is the key.

“If this technology is going to be used, I would hope that there is honest communication between the child and the parents, and that there’s an explicit acknowledgment of the trust factors at play,” he says. “That seems to me to be the most optimal scenario.”

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He has written for National Geographic, NPR, Discovery News, The History Channel, Thrillist, Goodreads, and McClatchy newspapers.


Illustration by Verónica Grech


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