In today’s online world, the amount of personal information that is publically available is staggering. With several quick finger taps on a keyboard or screen, a resourceful individual can discover someones age, address, phone number, photos and more. As a result, many parents have understandable concerns about family privacy; of particular concern is the possibility of children sharing their locations with online strangers or child predators (often without realizing it), risking personal safety.
Smart phone location apps are capable of broadcasting your child’s location publically and often come pre-installed, so it's important to set privacy controls and boundaries about who will be included in a child's "circles." Popular location apps include Life360 and Apple’s Find Friends or Find iPhone. While offering a number of benefits to modern-day families, location apps also come with safety concerns.
Location apps offer tremendous peace of mind for some parents, allowing them to track their kids at any time.
“Parents flock to this kind of technology, especially once tweens and teens spend more time on their own and driving,” says Titania Jordan, chief parenting officer for Bark, an organization empowering parents to keep their children safer online and elsewhere.
Whether parents want to keep tabs on kids walking home alone, track a teen driving to a friend’s house, or investigate suspicions that a tween isn’t really where she said she was, location apps can provide a wealth of information.
“Kids are using Snap Map and Find My Friends to see the location of friends,” Jordan says. This approach can also be helpful to find others at large gatherings, such as concerts, community events or amusement parks.
Of particular interest as advancing technology drives the cost of phones higher than ever, these apps find lost or stolen phones.
“Because [location apps] broadcast your teen’s physical location, they open up the possibility of meeting strangers face to face or enabling someone to follow your teen without their knowledge,” explains an article by Common Sense Media.
The safety risks of this happening vary widely, depending on the apps used. Most do offer safety features, but they need to be set appropriately. In general, it is important to understand an app’s privacy settings; contact technical support if you need help.
“Depending on the platform, the risks range from minor to severe. Life360 runs on a mobile device to allow [people] to view family members on a map, communicate with them, and receive alerts when loved ones arrive at home, school or work. This is a closed circle system and is not shared with outsiders,” says Jordan.
“With Bark, rather than a ‘Did you get there?’ or ‘Are you there yet?’ text, parents rely on a single-click location confirmation from their children to confirm they've safely arrived at their destination, complete with a map of their location,” she continues. “Bark is also a closed system, impervious to predators.”
Apple’s Find Friends app can only connect with existing contacts and email addresses, and friends need to have the app, too; but if your child has a lot of contacts (including ones they’ve never met), this can be risky.
“Snap Map is probably the most risky of all, given that anyone could see a child’s location in real time from anywhere in the world if they have not enabled ‘ghost mode’,” Jordan says.
Other potential cons: advertisers using location information to target kids; teens resenting a parent’s “stalking” behavior as an invasion of their growing autonomy; and location apps won’t work with a dead battery, or if the phone is turned off.
What Can Parents Do?
“Parents can and should speak with their children often about the risks of sharing too much information with too many people (or the wrong people),” says Jordan. “Parents need to emphasize that their children should never, ever share P.I.I. (Personally Identifiable Information) with anyone but family and extremely close friends (both in real life and digitally).”
Jordan suggests reviewing all apps and settings with your child, sharing concrete examples of bad things that have happened to peers their age, and not being afraid to tackle tough subjects. “There are an estimated 750,000 online predators across the globe, so the danger is real and very present. You don’t want an online predator turning into a real-life nightmare.”
Lisa Pawlak is a contributing writer and mom of two boys.