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December 6, 2022

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 97

Should I Track My Teen’s Location?

Episode 97

Today’s technology allows us to know a lot more about our kids than our parents ever knew about us. So…is it a good idea to track your teen’s location? While parents might track their teens for supervision and safety reasons, teens often long for more independence and privacy than tracking allows. Dr. Lisa explains why this tension is an expectable, healthy part of adolescent development and unpacks two key questions: What, exactly, does tracking accomplish? And does it really help to keep teens safe? Reena asks about the downsides of tracking a teen’s location and Dr. Lisa lays out the tricky scenarios she’s encountered in her practice.

December 6, 2022 | 31 min

Transcript | Should I Track My Teen’s Location?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 97: Should I Track My Teen’s Location?

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

The following transcript has been automatically generated by an AI system and should be used for informational purposes only. We cannot guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of the information provided.

——

Reena Ninan
So since I haven’t gotten my kids a cell phone, there’s there’s this whole world once you’ve given your kid a cell phone that I’m unaware of, but I didn’t know that sometimes parents track their kids location via cell phone, they turn it on and can know exactly where they really are. Is that a big thing?

Lisa Damour
They do. But it’s a huge thing. And it’s a hugely controversial thing, actually, among parents, some parents feel very strongly that you should not track your teenagers, that it’s important for them to be independent in the world. And other parents think like what loving parent wouldn’t track your teenager and know where they are, and maybe help keep them safe? Yeah, that’s a big topic.

Reena Ninan
That’s interesting. So I’m in the K track up track. But I’m curious to know, by the end of the podcast, if I still feel that way. I want to read you this letter that came into our inbox. Lisa says, Hello, I love your podcast. And I was wondering what your thoughts are about the location tracking app life 360. And teenagers turning it off, I have a rising senior who doesn’t want to be on our life 360 family plan for senior year, and I don’t feel comfortable doing it. I really liked the safety feature of it. And I like to know I can check where he is. What are your thoughts for stuff? What is this life? 360? I’ve never heard of it.

Lisa Damour
It’s just one of the apps where you know, the whole family can track one another whoever opts in contract one another. And, you know, one of the things to say right off the top is kids track their parents too, you know that it’s not always that the parent is the one looking in and seeing where the teenager is the teenagers will sometimes be like, where’s mom when she coming home? You know, and so it’s like, cool, everybody can

Reena Ninan
track everybody in the family. And you know exactly where everybody is.

Lisa Damour
Everybody who’s agreed to be on the app. Yeah. Wow. Okay.

Reena Ninan
So walk us through this. What exactly? Are these apps? Like? It’s just they’re just tracking apps.

Lisa Damour
Yeah, just so you can see where your kid is, it’s like, you know, it’s like using find my with your Apple likes, like, you know, that it’s basically that. Okay. And, you know, it’s interesting, because this letter, you know, we’ll think through all of the pros and cons of what this kid is asking what this parent is wanting. But what this letter really captures is perfect adolescence, which is the parent wants more supervision and control. And the kid wants less, the kid is saying, I’m about to be a senior, I don’t want to be on this anymore. Okay. And I just want to acknowledge that this is health. This is exactly what we’re looking for in adolescence is this drive towards independence, this drive towards autonomy. And I know we’ve said it before, and I’m gonna say it again, when a parent is sitting in that tension, where the kid is asking for more freedom than the parent is comfortable with. That is exactly what we want to see. It’s not fun for the parent. But that is health at its best in teenagers.

Reena Ninan
All right, I get it. And then a year from now, the senior possibly will be sitting somewhere in college on their own. But what is so bad with tracking your kid? Like, Isn’t that okay?

Lisa Damour
You know where they are? Well, it can be, I think it can be and I think a lot of it really comes down to how you set it up. Okay, so the first thing I would say is, make sure your kids aware that you’re doing it because you know, obviously if the kid is opting into live 360, they have, you know, they are aware that you’re doing this and this kid is now like, and now I’d like to opt out. But there are possibilities and I could certainly see this happening right at the moment where you’re in where you give a kid a phone, where you never exactly have the conversation about the fact that that kid’s phone is on the family I’d my plan or something, which is, you know, part of, I think the apple universe. And so then you’re like, Oh, look at that, I can see where my kid is. Oh. And so you should, I think be transparent about it. If you’re gonna do it as one important first step, okay.

Reena Ninan
Even from the beginning, even if they’re just getting a phone, you’re saying transparency, like, don’t try to hide it and track them that you think it’s really important to have that conversation say, Look, I’ll know wherever you are.

Lisa Damour
I think it is. And I think, you know, one of the things I’ve learned from my friends in tech is, you know, if you’re tracking your kid surreptitiously, like they will figure it out, like they will, they will a little bit quicker than what that one day or they’ll be like, well, look at that. I’m on the Find my plan, deactivate, you know, I mean, they will do it. So you want to be above board if you’re tracking your kid. Okay, so that’s one question. And then the next question is, what do you think that tracking is accomplishing? Right? Like that’s, I think, something that both the parent and the teenager need to be really clear with each other about, like, what is the tracking making happen. And there are certain things that can make tons of sense for tracking. So for example, their parents where if the kid is driving home, and maybe a little late, rather than texting the kid while they’re driving, the parent can say I just you know, if I can see that you’re on your way home. Now, you know, I’m not going to text you while driving, and I don’t want to text you while driving. And if I’m expecting you, and I don’t see you, and I can see that you’re three blocks away, then you’re safe, because I’m not texting you. And I’m less anxious, because I know you’re on your way. So that’s a reason.

Reena Ninan
Do you feel that these really keep the kids safe?

Lisa Damour
Okay, so that’s a really key question. And that’s, you know, in this letter, right, the parent says, you know, I am not ready to give up the safety feature of it. Okay, so this one really needs to be teased apart. Because in my book on these things, their safety and their safety, okay, so I’ll give you an example of a safety feature that I think makes a ton of sense. And if I were a parent in this position, I would not think twice. So there are kids with very severe allergies, or kids I’ve cared for who are, you know, coming to terms with having type one diabetes. And they can and do have medical crises, where they might become unconscious or unaware. And so for parents who are caring for kids with significant medical concerns, and they want to be able to give those teenagers freedom because they are teenagers. If the parent reaches out to the kid and doesn’t get something back, being able to find that kid physically, can be literally life or death. And also can be the path by which the parent can grant the kid a lot more freedom. So there’s that.

Reena Ninan
Okay. So if your kid doesn’t have medical concerns, does it really help with safety?

Lisa Damour
It can. And I think it can undermine safety. So here’s the yes to that. I also know families where they have an agreement with their kid, and I think this is a perfectly reasonable thing to set up. Where if something’s wrong, the kid texts 911 to the parent, which is basically come get me wherever I am right now, or I need you right now. And so then the parent can just check the kid’s location and go, you know, I’m not exactly sure what would require that. But I don’t see a problem with having that agreement. Like I would want that agreement. You know, like, if my kids like, I need you right here right now, like, this just got weird, or I don’t feel safe, and like, I need you on your way. And once you’re on your way, I’ll explain what’s going on. That to me has a place like that, to me, I understand. Here’s the part where I think safety might be compromised. Which is, can you really keep your kids safe just by knowing their location? Right. I mean, I, I know, right? There are teenagers who are doing all the wrong things in all the right places. Right. Great point. Right. And so totally, I think that it can sometimes lead to this false sense of security, right? Like, they can go over to somebody’s house, and you’re like, Oh, I love that kid. Love that family. And your kid may be doing all sorts of things you don’t want him to do. And the other thing, I think gets tricky on the safety question is it makes a little muddy, who’s responsible for that kid safety when that kid is not with you?

Reena Ninan
But I guess for me, it’s like a peace of mind. Like I can look on this and know, okay, he’s that so and so’s house. You know, like you said, it might not be the safest place or they might have a basement. It doesn’t mean they’re not getting in trouble. But isn’t that peace of mind where it’s something maybe possibly just knowing you could find him wherever you want?

Lisa Damour
It is to the parent, I think. I mean, I think there’s a very real quality you know, there’s that wonderful quote about having a child it’s like it’s your heart walking around outside your body. already, you know, what do you think really does capture what it feels like? So you’re like, Oh, here’s my heart. Like, I mean, like, it would be nice to know, right? I mean, so there’s that. But what I would say is, you have to then have a conversation about like, look, I’m doing this because it gives me some peace of mind. Like, I love knowing where you are. But if you’re gonna do it, I think it’s worth the extra step of then also saying, but let’s be clear me knowing where you are doesn’t mean that you, I can keep you safe, right, you can make all sorts of choices away from me, that I could not possibly detect with, you know, knowing your location. When you’re not with me, you’re in charge of your safety. I’m here to help if you need me. But let’s be really clear me knowing where you are doesn’t mean that I can keep you safe, you keep you safe. I think that’s worth saying,

Reena Ninan
I get why now you’re saying this is important that once you turn these tracking devices on or you use an app, if that’s what you want to do, that you have that conversation with them to lay all this out, so they know you know where they are. But you also can tell them, it doesn’t mean that wherever you’re at, I can swoop in and come get you at any moment’s notice.

Lisa Damour
Yeah, like just be clear about what it’s for, like, it’s nice for me to know you’re there. Or if I’m worrying about where you are, I can check without bothering you. I mean, having that conversation. But being really clear about what it doesn’t doesn’t do. Yeah, in terms of, you know, keeping the kids safe or keeping the parent feeling less anxious. But the piece we have to really sit with here Reena is parenting teenagers is just an anxiety provoking situation, right? There’s no getting around the fact that when your heart is now driving, and potentially drinking and potentially hanging out at parties where there’s weed, there’s just anxiety in that, that there’s no real solution for and I think that’s one of the hardest parts about being the parent of a teenager.

Reena Ninan
We’re talking about tracking your kids phones, and we want to get into some of the downsides of doing it. I only see the upsides because I know where my kid is. And that’s worth having a peace of mind you’ve convinced me that don’t just track without telling them have a conversation, talk about these things. But what are some of the downsides that parents might not think of of tracking your kid? Okay, so one

Lisa Damour
is the information and as we know is incomplete. And sometimes it can blow up and I had this happen in my practice. Good kid. There was an after party at a after a dance. So it was like there’s a homecoming. And then there was a dance at a party at a house after the homecoming. And the parent did not feel good about the house where the party was after the homecoming. And so the parents said to the daughter, you can go to homecoming, but I don’t want you to go into the after party. So the daughter, her date went to the after party. And her the way she worked it out is that her ride home was from the after party. So the daughter and her date went to the after party. The daughter stood outside I believe this kid when she said this is what happened, stood outside, talk to some people for about 20 minutes and then never went in the house and then caught a ride home. Yeah. Okay. The parent is home watching all of this on the tracker. Oh God, and the parent who is under the impression and has had the agreement with the kid that she’s not going to this party sees the kid, you know, sees the kids blue.go to the party and watch us for 20 minutes becoming increasingly angry. Right and by the time that kid walks in the door, the parent is on the ceiling.

Reena Ninan
Of course the dog is right there at the house. We went to the house

Lisa Damour
that yes that you weren’t going to and that we had an agreement. And the kid is like I didn’t go in. I did not stay. It was how I could be kind of gracious about bluntly ditching my date and midway through the homecoming thing, it’s how I got my ride home. The kid had, in many, many ways played by the rules. And I think in the end, the parent came to see it that way. But it was only after this giant blow up that in some ways, like, the parent didn’t really need to know. The kid, the kid, you know, kind of, if they didn’t follow the letter of the law, they followed the spirit of the law, they came home safe, you know. So I think that that’s a good example where you’re getting ambiguous information that can lead to a very unpleasant thing that probably never needed to happen. In the same way Reena, that our parents had no idea where we were, when we were teenagers, may in some ways have slept better for not knowing

Reena Ninan
that so I never thought of it that way. But you’re right, does this affect development differently? You know, the fact that we have technology we know so much more in a way that sometimes maybe being in the dark might prevent, I’ll protect all parties, like, no harm, no foul wonder that I wonder

Lisa Damour
that a lot. Like we do know a lot more about our kids. And we know a lot more about their social lives. And we know a lot more about their grades, right, as we recently discussed. And this is all emerged, I think, with well meaning intentions. And I think it all has unintended consequences. And I think we need to be always mindful of the unintended consequences. Okay, here’s the other place. I’ve seen it be really unpleasant between teenagers and parents around tracking, which is where they’re not in agreement. And, you know, it’s back to this letter where the kids like, Okay, I feel done. And the parents like, Okay, I don’t feel done. So if the parents like, no, no, I’m tracking you and the kids like, no, no, I don’t want you to track me. There is not a teenager worth their salt. Who wants soon become sneaky, right? teenagers want privacy for its own sake, teenagers want independence, because that is actually what they are biologically programmed to want. And so what happens is the kid who may not want it, so that they can go do illicit things, or go to the naughty places, right? They just don’t want to be watched the parents like, No, I’m still watching you. And so then the kids like, Fine, I’m turning off the phone. Like they just turn off their phones. And so the kids like, you can’t find me anywhere. Wow,

Reena Ninan
I didn’t know that was an option. Of course, you turned it off. And you can try to write or to communicate with anyone who texted you want to turn it off, and no one knows where I am, I did not think about that option.

Lisa Damour
Now, they’ll totally do that. Or they’ll leave it at the house that they you think they’re at. And then they’ll go with their friends, where they’re not supposed to

Reena Ninan
be, oh, my god, none of that.

Lisa Damour
So it creates this cat and mouse game where the kids gonna win. Like, there was no way for the parent to actually lock that down. And so then there’s created all of this mistrust. And then the parent may bust the kid, and now the kids getting busted for that. And it creates an ugliness that was not on the table before again, talk about unintended consequences. And may really be born out of a very healthy wish, just for privacy for its own sake, independence for its own sake. So it’s not it’s this is not one of those things where there’s a yes or a no or a clear, right or a clear wrong. But it’s really about thinking about actually, you said the magic word. What’s the impact on development? And what’s the impact on our relationship? Like, is this going to get in your way of development? Or is this going to foster your development? Is this going to undermine our relationship? Or is this going to improve our relationship?

Reena Ninan
That’s good, Lisa, that’s worth repeating. So it’s worth asking, Is this going to foster a relationship? Or is it going to undermine our relationship? We’ve done a podcast before about when a friend was hooking up with an older person, and should you, your daughter told the mom about it? Do you now go to the other parent, and your big takeaway on that podcast was, if you are going to jeopardize your relationship with your kid, it’s not worth it. It’s just not worth it, ratting another kid out for something that, you know, it just wasn’t worth it if that was the conclusion you came to. But you’re saying the same is true about tracking. Like, if this is going to undermine your relationship, it’s not worth that fight.

Lisa Damour
It’s not worth a fight. And like, I’ll see you and I’ll raise you on this Reena. Because the idea behind tracking is that it’s how I keep my kids safe. Yeah, the thing that keeps kids safe is working relationships with their parents or other good adults in their lives. And so like you can’t trade I know where you are for you are willing to ask me for help. Like you can’t, those are not equals here. A kid’s willingness to be like, Okay, I’m at a party. I’m embarrassed to tell you it’s actually somewhere I’m not supposed to be but I want you to come get me because I don’t feel safe. That’s how you keep kids safe. And you can do that with or without tracking. But if a kid is being tracked again Is there well, you may really undermine their willingness to call and ask for that kind of help.

Reena Ninan
Wow, I hadn’t hadn’t thought of that. I hadn’t thought of why that’s so important. And I hadn’t thought of it. Honestly, before this podcast, I would have just tracked my kid not told them anything and figured out that was absolutely fine to do and not have realized the consequences of that as well.

Lisa Damour
Isn’t it interesting? Also that like tracking, like, because it is it’s so natural, you’re like, what’s my kid and my kid? Yeah, they’re young. They just got a phone. Like, why wouldn’t I want to know this? Right? Yeah. But it’s it just gets to the heart of so many critical factors in raising teenagers, especially like trust and safety and independence and autonomy and communication, right? Like, tracking, like, scoops it all up together. And it’s a really powerful thing. Okay, so Reena, based on all of this, what would you tell their letter writer?

Reena Ninan
Oh, wow, you’re putting me on the spot? Well, my big takeaway, you have to have a conversation if you’re turning it on. And I also think you should have a roadmap, if the kid comes to you, eventually, I would like to have it turned on forever. But at some point, I think senior year, I want them to have that sense of independence that no one’s looking over your shoulder. It’s just you, right. And I can understand why the senior year really wants that. And, and also, I just never want my kid to be the kid that can’t cope in college because I have been hovering over. Like, you know, we said in the previous podcasts about I get every online grade ping to me instantly as soon as it comes on. And you’re explaining to me why this is not a good healthy thing that you want them to be able to create that independence and that trust and come to you and tell you stuff. So. So I think there’s got to be a roadmap if your kid is adamant about turning it on, like how do we get there? But I’m realizing what why am I so

Lisa Damour
adamant about turning it off? Oh, sorry. No, it gets to a point like this boy, yeah, it’s turning it

Reena Ninan
off, if what I meant. But I guess for me, I’m asking, Well, why do I even want it on? And it’s more than safety. I’m realizing as a parent, the reason why I would want it on is so I know exactly where they’re at at any given moment. And also, I think secretly, are they lying to me? Are they really telling me where they’re at? am I catching them in a lie? And I think I would be that parent who at the party saw their kid go when their kid probably didn’t go inside and play by the rules. But I would lose my mind when they came home. And not believe them that they didn’t go into the park

Lisa Damour
is tricky, Reena. Right. I mean, like, once you start to like, dig into this, like, it gets really tricky. Okay, so I agree with you. I think you know, what you’re saying, which is, you know, the kids 18. He’s asking, I think that idea of a roadmap. Like if you say to your kid I’m tracking you for now. But if this feels, you know, different for you down the line, or if you get to a point where you don’t want it, we can have that conversation. I love that a lot. And now this kid is here saying I don’t want to do this anymore. If the parent is like, I’m not quite ready. There are some Yeah, buts that we could add in here. So the parent could say something like, okay, like, fair enough, like you’re 18 you’re about to be a senior next year in college. And again, parents do track their kids in college. And let’s come back to that, you know, next year in college, like you will be really far away from me, presumably. But the parent might say, let’s do this. I’m willing to take you off life 360. If, when I text you to check in you reply, because that’s the other thing with teenagers. So you can be like, where are you? And if they don’t answer you like, Alright, you’re back on line. 360. Right? Or when are you coming home? Right? I mean, there are reasons why adults need to know this. Like, should I make dinner for four or make dinner for two? Like, like, what’s the plan here? Right? Yeah. So if when I text you, you get back to me in a timely fashion. That’s, that would be fine. And also, if I don’t have any reason to want to back on, right, like, if you two weeks from now, end up in the ER for drinking, you know, I’m back on like, 360, right. I mean, like, like that you could have some provisional, you know, like, we can try it. And the things I’m worried about yours. You know, if they come up, we’ll return to it. I think most teenagers would be like, Fair enough, fair enough. And then you can take that is a step without feeling like you’ve lost all of the parameters that were helping you.

Reena Ninan
This kid ultimately wants independence in this letter, right? That’s, it seems like I shouldn’t have mom breathing down and checking out where I am in every given. What do you think and having that conversation is important to tell that but what would you tell the parent who just is not ready to give up that control just yet, even though it might be time?

Lisa Damour
I think what I would say to the parent is when you say this is about safety. What’s the worry? Like really name it, you know, and really pushing that parent to name what the fear is, you know, is it that your kid’s gonna get in a car accident? Is it that your kid’s gonna get passed out drunk? Is it that you know, like, and of course, this is terrifying as a parent of a teenager and this is why being a pet Have a teenager is terrifying like these things happen. But really facing them directly. And then really thinking through where does tracking fall in either preventing that or making it somehow less dangerous for your kid? Are there other options? I think it’s very easy as a parent of a teenager, and I say this as a parent of teenagers to be like, No, it’s for safety. And not really drill down on what that means. And I think, you know, then that really does get to the question of like, tracking kids in college, right when when they’re not even maybe in town. And I will say, Reena, like, I think that’s really tricky. And I can picture versions of that story. That makes sense. But when I hear about that, I always think, but what if your kid doesn’t want to spend the night in their own dorm room? Like, let’s be honest. College kids don’t always leave in their designated dorm? Do you want to know that? And or does your kid want to feel like they have to explain that to you? Right? So this point is not far away from a moment where we might say, okay, kid, you’re off the grid, or at least off the family grid. And I think that’s something we want to keep in mind as kids really get towards the end of high school and certainly into college. Wow.

Reena Ninan
Oh, my gosh, another issue that I would never have thought about to deconstruct in this manner, and why it’s so important to have that conversation, have that conversation with them, let them know you’re tracking. And I think my takeaway is, if they’re adamant about doing it, create a roadmap that you feel comfortable to get them to independence.

Lisa Damour
I think that’s a beautiful way to say.

Reena Ninan
So what do you have for us, Lisa, for parenting to go?

Lisa Damour
You know, this topic reminds me of something I’ve heard my really wise colleagues in tech, say, which is that there are not technological solutions for relationship problems. Wow. And I think it’s a really important, like, way to think about our interactions, especially with teenagers that we can think, well, if I am monitoring their, you know, texts enough, then I can, you know, do the kind of guidance I need to do or if I can track their location enough, I can keep them safe. And I just would want any parent who feels like they’re moving into a lot of surveillance as a way of trying to help or guide their teenager, I would want the parent to just try to step back a little bit and think, Is there a way we could do this in the context of our relationship? Could it be conversations, or could it be agreements, as opposed to me supervising so closely through a digital means? I think that’s where we want to go. If we find ourselves feeling really, really anxious and looking to technology as the solution.

Reena Ninan
Technology definitely has an impact on relationships. This is such great advice, Lisa, thank you so much. And next week, we’re going to talk about what do you do with your social life and your teen social lives clash? How do you solve that? What? I’ll see you next week.

Lisa Damour
See you next week.

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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