At a holiday cocktail party in Wellesley, wine flowed as we swapped lovingly snide tidbits about what we’d given our kids for the holidays. That’s when I told my fellow parents about how the iPod Touch had turned my kids into stalkers: “Last week I got a creepy text from my eight-year-old daughter,” I said. It went like this: Hey Mom, I know where you are and how long you’ve been there.
Yes, thanks to a disingenuously titled app she and her brother had downloaded onto their iPod Touches called “Find My Friends” (which, given its capabilities, might as well be called “Annoy Your Friends”), my two darling little cherubs have figured out how to keep tabs on me.
I was as irked as I was amused. Because really, in this age of attachment parenting, wasn’t I supposed to be watching them?
I fully expected the conversation to move along. But it did not. It stopped dead. One fortysomething dad, quite possibly the love child of an REI catalog and a Brooks Brothers storyboard, piped up. “That’s nothing,” he said, pulling out his iPhone. “Look at this.”
On his phone was a far more powerful new app that cross-references his kids’ calendars with real-time GPS on their phones, so parents can tell not only where their kids are, but also whether they’re supposed to be there.
For example, if my daughter has voice lessons every Wednesday at 2:45 p.m. and she’s still at the school playground then, her phone will send me a text a few minutes later, alerting me that she’s not anywhere close to practicing her scales yet.
“That’s amazing,” said one smiling brunette, the mom of a high school senior. “I so want it.” Another dad was awestruck (and clearly tipsy): “So basically you don’t have to really worry all that much anymore.” A few minutes later, after a brief detour about teachers, the conversation turned again to tracking your kids like prey, this time with more fervor as Tipsy Dad started asking not only where he could find the app, but also how he could fire it up.
I felt my shoulders scrunching up the way they always do when I’m trying to hold my tongue. My disinterest in tracking my kids like FedEx packages made me the odd mom out—the equivalent of turning my cherubs out on the streets, to this group anyway.
“I’m not sure,” I said hesistantly between sips of sauvignon blanc. “It’s a little controlling, no?” The dad who’d first shown us the app momentarily regarded me as that crass guest who’d scarfed the last mushroom canapé. Then he shrugged. “Well, hey,” he said, “with most of the technology we all use now, there’s no such thing as privacy anymore anyway.”
Maybe he’s right. In this age of big data, privacy is a quaint notion that we’ve forsaken in the name of convenience. If you use Gmail, search with Google, install a smart-home device like Nest Thermostat (which Google now owns), or share your family photos on Facebook, information about your daily habits is regularly being uploaded to companies. Everything’s for sale, including our buying habits, Web searches, and schedules. What’s more, many of us have made our peace with this fact, because we also know we’re exchanging our privacy for free email, fast Web results, and the joy of posting to the world that thing we just ate.
But that’s grownups. When it comes to our kids, the most prevalent all-snooping eye doesn’t belong to the government or a faceless corporation. Children are less concerned with Big Brother than they are with Big Mother. We the parents have become ace surveillants, a homeland security force for, well, our offspring. And it’s worth taking a minute to ask ourselves what the heck we’re doing—and whether we’re tracking our kids to protect them, or us, or neither.
First, get familiar with the abundance of kid-spying software now available to parents. The new app that dad showed me at the cocktail party? It’s called DondeEsta— developed by a Cambridge-based company—and it lets you track your kids and get alerts when they’re not where they’re supposed to be. The same company also offers a handy little piece of hardware that, when plugged into kids’ cars, will send texts notifying parents if their “check engine” light is on, or when, where, and if they’ve parked. Another app, Family Tracker, lets you follow them with GPS—and also plays a loud, annoying siren anytime you’d like to demand their attention. An app called SecuraFone will alert you if Johnny drives over the speed limit.
Add to that new home-automation systems like SmartThings, and you’ll also know not just whether the kids are home, but precisely what they’re doing while there. Sure, you could install SmartThings cameras in your living room that stream to your phone. Or go for the basic package, which involves hooking up sensors in specific places that tell you whether the young’uns have accessed the liquor cabinet, the fridge, the guest room, the garage—anything.
You don’t need to be a tech guru to activate any of this, either. “We’ve hit that tipping point where it’s all so easy to get, so inexpensive, and so easy to install and operate, that we can literally be an omnipresent parent even when we’re nowhere near our home,” says Ron Remy, a Newton dad and writer who started the blog Tech Dad Central. He points out what a cinch it is to set up a wireless camera in your home that streams straight to your phone. “Ten minutes on Amazon.com, then 15 with a screwdriver, and you can have it up and running. You don’t even have to plan out monitoring your kids anymore. It can be just over a cup of coffee on a weekend morning, and suddenly you always know everything they’re doing in the house.” And all of that data? It’s probably saved for an eternity. Maybe, in some dystopian future, you’ll submit it as part of your college application.
Of course, the tracking doesn’t end when the kids leave for college. Lately, parents have been monitoring the app Yik Yak, where kids toss up anonymous short posts for their peers to read about what they’re thinking. Many parents I spoke with for this story admitted to watching their kids’ Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, and Twitter feeds even after they’d matriculated, for the sole purpose of, well, stealthily checking in. But that’s barely the tip of the Big Mother iceberg. Even without all these apps, some moms and dads can’t let their kids go, demanding constant contact via text—even when their adult kids kick against it.
“I pay for both of my kids’ phones,” says Eric Pugh, who has two in college now. “So I want to hear from them once a day. I don’t need to know everything they’re doing, just a check-in.” Is he worried about anything in particular? Or is it perhaps just because he misses them? “I get upset when I know both kids always have their phones on them, and if they’re not texting me back, then I feel like they’re blowing me off. I guess that’s the curse of current technology; now we know we can be constantly in touch, so if they’re not, we automatically wonder what’s wrong.”
We just want to know where you are: Is that so wrong? Many of these surveillance apps could be justified as safety measures. You want to know if Junior is downing gin in the family den while you’re in the office, right? Or if your daughter’s car gets towed. Do you want to know if she’s at a party in another part of town when she’s supposed to be sleeping at a friend’s house? Of course you do.
Or do you?