Advice on Tracking Your Teens
When — and how — parents should do it
With all of the technology at their fingertips parents should, in theory, be able to track much of what their teens are doing online and through social media — as well as where they are, where they’ve been and even how fast they are traveling to get there. But is this a good thing, or can it ultimately do more harm than good?
We asked local experts if parents should even track their teens — and, if they do, what they should keep in mind. Local parents also weigh in on why they decided to track their teens.
Why Do Parents Track Their Teens?
Parents decide to keep tabs on their teen's location for various reasons. Two local experts — Kristen Wynns, a child psychologist who founded and owns Wynns Family Psychology in Cary and is the author of “The No Wimpy Parenting Handbook”; and Laura Tierney, founder and president of The Social Institute in Durham — say two of the most common reasons parents track their teens are related to their safety and behavior. Regarding behavior, Tierney says parents not only want to keep tabs on their own teen, but on that of their teen’s friends — especially when it comes to social media.
Because social media — and even texting — are so permanent and public, Wynns believes tracking is part of a parent’s responsibility. Since a child’s brain isn’t finished developing until age 25, she says, “their ability to make sound decisions and anticipate consequences for their actions” isn’t finished until that point. For that reason, and because teens can’t control what happens to the content they put “out there,” Wynns says parents have to “ensure that their kids and teens are being responsible and appropriate with what they send out.”
Wake County mom Jane* uses the Circle app to track and control the online content her daughters see, the social media apps they use and the amount of time they spend online. She and her husband decided to use Circle because it became clear that their daughters needed “a little more balance in their world.” Like many teens, they “were having a tough time disciplining themselves, putting their devices down and getting done things that needed to be done,” Jane* says. While she still tracks their content, she no longer has to be “the tech monitoring police.”
Durham mom Kelly Budzinski tracks the location of her two teenage boys using the Life360 app. Her family started using it when her oldest son got his driver’s license, a point at which many parents start to use a location tracker.
Wynns says in the case of new drivers, “It’s really reassuring to parents to have the technology to get a notification that the teen arrived safely to school or safely home after practice. It basically cuts out the old-school way of having the teen call in some way to say they got there safe.”
Budzinski says that while her son is supposed to let her know if he’s running late whenever possible, being able to see his location also prevents him from having to text or call her while he’s driving — something she considers to be another safety bonus offered by the Life360 app.
The Downside of Tracking
Having the ability to track a teen’s online activities, as well as his or her location, can be a blessing and a curse. Tierney says a primary downside to consider is the fact that a parent who tracks his or her teen’s location or online activity may lose the child’s trust. This is because the teen may see this act as an invasion of his or her privacy.
Wynns says while that reaction can be amplified if the tracking starts after a teen has had a digital device or driver’s license for a while, the bottom line is: “Parents need to be parents, despite a kid being upset.”
On the flip side, Tierney cautions that while parents usually know best, they should never assume they are savvier than their teens. Some parents who track their teens falsely assume they are staying ahead of their kids, she says, and erroneously replace discussions about guidelines and concerns with silence.
“Rest assured, kids will always be ahead of the game,” she says, adding that it’s important that when a teen does figure out how to “backdoor the app,” he or she still understands the parent’s rules and values, which are what will ultimately guide the teen’s choices.
Wynns and Tierney agree that the No. 1 rule parents should follow if they decide to track their teens is to tell them they’re doing it. Yes, the teen probably won’t like it, but if a parent has a good reason for doing it, he or she should explain that to the teen. The parent can say, “Here’s what I can see, and here’s what I’ll be looking at,” Tierney says.
When Budzinski and her husband told their son they would be using a location tracker, they made it a part of their overall discussion with him on driving and safety. They told him, “Using our car is a privilege, and if you’re going to use it, this is the way it’s going to be,” Budzinski says.
Experts caution that parents shouldn’t get carried away with tracking teens to the point of wanting to know everything their teen is doing every second of the day. These young adults still need room to make mistakes and learn how to fix them on their own.
But, at times, tracking gives parents more than knowledge and reassurance. Jane* took tracking her daughters’ online time one step further. She uses the app to limit the amount of time she spends on her own digital device as well.
“I’m trying to model for them how to strike a balance with technology, and to show them that, ‘Hey, even adults sometimes have trouble shutting it down.’ So this is just a good reminder for me, too,” she says.
*This name has been changed.
Robyn Kinsey Mooring is a Durham-based writer and mother of two boys.
Here are some additional resources recommended by Laura Tierney, founder and president of The Social Institute in Durham. Many of the parents she works with use the following apps and tools for tracking their teens:
• Apple’s Ask to Buy and Screen Time features
Parents can also download The Social Institute’s Family Social Standards Agreement, which they can use to discuss with their kids what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to social media.
Visit thesocialinstitute.com/downloads/family-social-standards-agreement to download the agreement.