When is child tracking software okay — and when is it not?

Emma McGowan 9 Feb 2021

How to protect children while still keeping parent-child trust intact

This year for Safer Internet Day, we’re taking a look at child tracking software. Technology has made it easier than ever for parents to know where their kids are, 24/7. And there are plenty of options, from covert software that the kid doesn’t know about to keyloggers that track everything they type to Find My iPhone. But is it really a good idea to use this software? And how is it different from stalkerware?

The answer, according to child psychologist Catherine Knibbs, is complicated. Knibbs, who specializes in cyber trauma, tells Avast that “there’s a huge difference between covert and overt tracking.” 

“It’s always about intent,” Knibbs says. “When it comes to stalking, there’s usually other intent and modus operandi.” 

She also believes that there are certain circumstances in certain families where some type of tracking software is absolutely necessary. For example, if there are medical issues — like a patient of hers who had a disorder that causes her to black out — or developmental ones — like a patient who would walk home without knowing the route if his boss was late. 

“In those circumstances, yes,” Knibbs says. “Because that’s actually about taking care of the child, rather than being an overbearing parent.”

However, if there are no extenuating circumstances, then “perhaps it might be a little intrusive for those children,” Knibbs says.

How to talk to your child about tracking software

But there are myriad reasons why a parent might choose to use tracking software on their child’s phone — and if that’s you, Knibbs says you must have a conversation or conversations with your child about it. And while those conversations are focused on software, they’re “not about software at all.” 

“It’s not about the technology,” Knibbs says. “It’s about the relationships — it’s about human-ness.” 

Installing software without talking to your child about it, Knibbs says, “creates mistrust between the child and parent, the same as it does in romantic relationships.”

“That’s really a violation of freedom, boundaries, and consent,” Knibbs says. “It’s a betrayal. And it also reinforces the idea that their parents don’t trust them in the world, so behavior becomes secretive. In the end, that’s not very helpful.” 

Knibbs recommends focusing on care, rather than on “tracking” or “stalking” or a lack of trust. It’s also important to emphasize your role as a parent and to be clear about what the child can expect. They’ll probably dislike it, but knowing and holding your boundaries — and the reasons for them — are essential.

“It’s my job as a parent to make sure that you’re safe: legally, morally, ethically,” Knibbs suggests saying. “And if I didn’t do my job properly, you could come to harm.”

Parents can also frame the conversation around a step toward independence, rather than a further restriction on a child’s life. Knibbs uses the term “facilitated independence” to describe the process of a child gradually moving away from a parent in a way that’s safe, trusting, and allows them to grow up. 

“You can’t learn independence until you’re independent,” Knibbs says. “It’s like, if you want to learn to walk a tightrope, you have to walk the tightrope. You can’t just think about it and then claim you know how to walk a tightrope.”

In the case of tracking software on a phone, facilitated independence might look like software that tracks where a child is at all times when they’re elementary school-aged and graduate to a conversation about why Mom might use Find My iPhone if her 15-year-old doesn’t make curfew. 

It’s an age-appropriate, gradual easing of digital monitoring and restriction accompanied by frank and open conversation every step of the way. The process can be likened to other changes in restrictions that happen as children get older, like a later curfew or being able to go out with friends on their own.

Overzealous tracking can have serious negative effects

Many parents put a lot of hope into tracking software, rationalizing that they’ll protect their child like a digital nanny or babysitter. But, in reality, tracking software can’t prevent something bad happening to your kid. It might help in the aftermath, but it’s not actually a preventative tool. 

Overzealous or unnecessary tracking of a child can actually lead to negative behaviors and outcomes for the child. And, to be clear, we’re not talking about occasionally using Check My iPhone when a teenager misses curfew and you’re worried. We’re talking about covert software that a child isn’t told about or constantly tracking a child who has no physical, psychological, or legal issues that would make tracking essential for their wellbeing.

For example, a kid who knows that his phone has tracking software on it might choose to leave it at a friend’s house or even at home when he sneaks out. Then, if something does happen, the parent has no way to get a hold of him.

Tracking software can also hinder a child’s ability to grow up and become independent. Knibbs says that having that software on their phone can make a child or teen feel like “Mom is standing beside you while you’re hanging around with your mates.” And if their friends’ parents aren’t tracking their friends, it can also make the child feel like something is wrong with them that makes their parents feel the need to track.  

“Let them grow up,” Knibbs says. “Let them have a go at it themselves.”

Knibbs thinks it’s possible that children who are covertly or overzealously tracked by their partners could reenact that behavior with a romantic partner in the future. Having been tracked as a child, they could normalize the act of sneaking on their partner’s phone or checking to see if their partner is tracking them. 

“What happens in our childhood becomes how we act as an adult,” Knibbs warns.

It’s scary to not know where your children are. And it’s tempting to lead on a technological solution instead of having the hard conversations and negotiations with your child. But, Knibbs says, “This isn’t about technology. This is about parenting.” Or, to think about it another way: Parenting with a technology assist. 

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