With all the hullabaloo around conspiracy theories that cite vaccines as vehicles of covert government surveillance through microchips, it’s easy to forget that there is a much easier way to track a person without any of those extra steps — their phone. Pretty much all phones these days are equipped with GPS capabilities and location services, and, in 2022, nearly everyone has a phone glued to their hand. However, unlike what the microchip-fearing crowd posits, many people don’t need to fear the government watching their every move; their parents, on the other hand, are a different story.
Many teens have just spent two years constrained to their family homes — prolonging childhood at an age when past generations of teens were experiencing their first forays into independence. The stunted social development of children, as a result of quarantine, has already garnered attention, but the effects of quarantine on those on the cusp of adulthood have yet to be studied in full. The cherry on top: the stress of the pandemic has sent overprotective parents into overdrive. Now, many young adults arrive at college with Life360 downloaded onto their phones in a parents’ misguided attempt to keep an eye on their no-longer children.
Life360 is a location services app that advertises itself as “the #1 family locator app and safety membership.” It allows family members to track each other’s locations through their phones along with features such as car crash reporting and SOS alerts. The reports get more detailed the higher you go on the membership plan tier list (free to gold to platinum). Depending on how you toggle it, you can get notifications for when a family member has left or arrived at a certain location; such as home or school. Although the app was launched in 2008, it only started gaining mainstream popularity in recent years.
Sometime late in high school, when pandemic restrictions had eased somewhat, I’d started to go out a bit more spontaneously with friends — no specific destination in mind, just pushing the boundaries of my budding adulthood and relishing a sense of normalcy. And so, my anxious single mother asked that I, her only child, download Life360. This was not an unreasonable request; it often slipped my mind to inform my mom of exactly where I was going, mostly because I never quite knew myself. But soon after, I became viscerally aware that I was not the only one being tracked. To varying degrees of extremity, my friends and I were all being kept on our parents’ leashes. My mom was more permissive than most, so her constant awareness of my whereabouts meant that I was allowed to go virtually anywhere (within reason). For a few of my friends, on the other hand, it meant limitations on their freedom. For their sake, I figured that graduation, the final rite of passage from childhood to young adulthood, would stop any controlling behavior from persisting after high school — if the actual physical distance between parent and child were not enough.
I was wrong. My best friend — who, in her senior year, would often leave her phone at work to escape the watchful eye of Life360 to do mundane things such as go to the mall — is still being micromanaged from home (hundreds of miles away). One evening, she’d gone briefly off-campus with friends to get In-N-Out. She immediately returned to her dorm and received various phone calls and text messages from her mother asking her where she’d gone and why. Another night, she’d been hounded by her mother asking her why she wasn’t back in her dorm yet at 11 p.m. But she was — the app just hadn’t updated quite yet. And yet another night, her mother called her three times to ask her why she let her battery life get so low. How is a worried mother supposed to track her daughter with a dead phone?
My best friend is prone to impulsive behavior, but she generally has a good head on her shoulders. Regardless, she’s resorted to many harebrained schemes (often involving leaving her phone behind) to throw her parents off her trail so that she could participate in frankly milquetoast activities, such as going off-campus to get food or doing a Target run. She can’t delete the app from her phone because she’s not financially independent just yet. Other teenagers have resorted to Googling tricks resulting in a wealth of “Life360 hacks” tutorials on YouTube and one of the top search results for Life360 being “Life360 ghost mode.” While my best friend has remained tame in her rebellion, others might indulge in more reckless behavior that could seriously endanger them.
Life360 and similar tracking apps enable over-surveillance by parents onto their children. College is the time for young adults to develop life skills, explore their identities, make mistakes and learn from them. Instead, we’re being foisted into an extended childhood — even after our social development has been impacted in unfathomable ways due to COVID-19 isolation. For many young adults, being so closely monitored by their parents causes them to remain dependent. College was once seen as the gateway ticket out of abusive home situations, but the tracking abilities of Life360 allow such behaviors to continue. These criticisms of Life360 are not new — there’s just the added flavor of the pandemic’s impact. The Washington Post wrote an article in 2019 detailing how Life360 can be used in ways that constitute emotional or financial abuse. In a since-removed 2019 Reddit post, the CEO of Life360 addressed these concerns but did not present any significant solutions.
This isn’t to say that parents’ concerns about safety are unfounded. Most people, especially those who are feminine-presenting, have been verbally harassed on the streets. There’s always, at least in my experience, the fear that these interactions will escalate. Additionally, with the prevalence of dating apps, many young adults are putting themselves in encounters that could easily go sideways. So, the heart of the idea behind Life360 is not necessarily the problem. In many ways, location tracking helps people to feel and be safe. Whenever I’m off somewhere alone, I make sure that my friends and my mom can see where I am in case of danger.
The solution lies in striking a balance between helicopter parenting and understandable levels of caution. Maybe it starts with disabling these tracking apps and creating a habit of regular and open communication between parent and child. Another compromise could be setting screen-time limits on location-monitoring apps to prevent seemingly 24-hour surveillance, or checking the app only in emergency situations.
However, this is a slippery slope — building trustful relationships between parents and children is easier said than done. Some parents will never see Life360 and similar apps as anything but tools for control over their adult children. So perhaps in the meantime, as we look for ways to set these boundaries, we should leave tracking apps behind.