Tracking Teens: Setting Limits and Giving Freedom

Setting Limits and Giving Freedom

Thanks to GPS technology in smartphones, we have plenty of options when it comes to keeping up with our teenagers. But should we? As with so many other parenting decisions, it mostly depends on what works best for your family and what skills you are trying to help your adolescent develop.

            “Life is a progression, and that’s how we should raise our teens as well. Make sure you start where you can build up,” says Jennifer Jackson-Rice, LSCSW, a child and adolescent therapist at Resolve, Prairie Village. “If you are allowing a curfew of midnight at 15, what are you allowing at the age of 17? Each kid masters skills differently.”

            During the teen years, it’s developmentally appropriate for kids to strive for more independence. Parents help foster responsibility by slowly giving more freedom over time as trust is built and skills are learned.

            Curbing distracted driving. Many parents use tracking apps to help reinforce important safety practices when they aren’t there.

            Jackson-Rice says she and her husband opted for the Cell Control app when their son got his driver’s license.

            “We wanted him to develop a very healthy habit of not being on his phone while in his car from the beginning,” she says.

            With any skill that you are nurturing, clarifying and implementing consequences if rules are broken are essential. For some families, that might mean pulling back on their teen’s curfew or restricting driving privileges.

            “Once that skill has been mastered, then move away from the app,” Jackson-Rice advises. “Teenagers are supposed to be explorers. They’re supposed to gain some independence, and we’re supposed to be able to trust. When we need to put a consequence in, we put a consequence in, and we start over again.”

            Supporting new drivers. Kelly Wornall, Lenexa, opted for Life 360, when her 16-year-old son started driving, also to reinforce safe driving.

            “We use the app more for peace of mind when he’s out driving,” Wornall says. “A huge benefit of the app is the feature where I can click ‘get directions to my child.’ He is horrible with directions, and we’ve had several instances where I’ve needed to meet up with him. I would have had issues finding him without the app.”

            The app offers crash detection and emergency response, a map pinpointing your loved one’s location and weekly driver reports, highlighting phone usage, acceleration, braking and top speeds.

            “The app is a little security blanket for us. We have a strong relationship with our kids, and we trust them. The kids know Life 360 is on their phones. It’s a decision we agreed on as a family,” Wornall says. “The boys track us too, so sometimes I feel like the tables are turned!”                  

            Tracking for control. Although she can see the wisdom of apps for vehicular safety, mom of five Cheryl McGaugh, Linn County, KS, has chosen not to use apps as a way to keep tabs on her kids.

            “I feel that if I lead and guide with mutual love and respect, I have no need or reason to track them,” McGaugh says, whose kids are 22, 16, 14, 11 and 9.

            Apps like mSpy and SpyBubble can be used anonymously to monitor your teen’s texts, calls and social media accounts. Some experts believe monitoring apps can cross a line if your teens have never given you a reason not to trust them.

            “If you have a difficult kiddo that has some boundary issues and following rules issues, then I see how apps could benefit when safety is a concern,” Jackson-Rice says. “Where we run into trouble is when there wasn’t a reason for us to become so hyper-involved with our teens.”

            Without opportunities to practice independence and self-reliance, teens may struggle with dependency issues or poor decision-making when they eventually experience full-blown freedom after leaving home for college, trade school or a job.

            “They then begin to learn independence when we’re not there as parents to monitor, protect, guide and give natural consequences,” Jackson-Rice says.

            How much do you want to know? The problem Jackson-Rice ran into with Cell Control was she got more information than she wanted, like her son’s acceleration rate, since the app also tracked his driving speed.

            “What we learned is that it created a lot of anxiety in parenting, which I’ve heard from many parents. They’re constantly aware of what their teenager is doing,” Jackson-Rice says.

            Of course, once you have that information, you have to decide what you’re going to do with it.

            Jackson-Rice says she chose to ignore the extra information, instead zeroing in on her goal of teaching her son not to use his phone while driving. If he gets pulled over by the police for speeding, he’ll have to face the natural consequences of receiving a speeding ticket.

            As for Wornall, Life 360 has been a good fit for her family’s current needs.

            “In using a tracking app, you as a parent are skating on a fine line between making sure your kid is safe and stalking them,” Wornall says. “We don’t want to be helicopter parents, but at the same time, we want to know he arrived safely at his destinations.”


Mutual trust-building strategies

  • Discuss tracking/safety apps as a family.
  • Talk about personal safety measures in cars and with social media.
  • Model safety measures.
  • Be present and available to connect with your teen, like when they arrive home at curfew.
  • Carve out dedicated family time throughout the week (include their friends if they desire).
  • Be flexible; kids learn skills at different paces.

Common Tracking & Safety Apps

  • Life 360
  • Our Pact
  • Circle
  • Bark
  • Cell Control
  • iPhone’s “find my phone” feature
  • Blue tooth options that shut down texting and driving

Freelance journalist Christa Melnyk Hines resides in Olathe with her husband and their two middle school sons. She is the author of Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.

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