Tech-savvy parents have spent years using cell phones, those ultimate tools of adolescent aloofness, to snoop on their kids. Now, thanks to a series of sleek, smart new apps, that fringe practice is going mainstream--with a vengeance.
Recently, the Life360 smart-phone app, which taps GPS technology to provide real-time info about family members' whereabouts, logged its 20 millionth download. Similar apps such as Footprints (iPhone) and SMS Tracker (Android) are racking up hundreds of thousands more. (Many are free, but some cost $5 a month.) The programs have become so convenient that, according to estimates by the Swedish telecom-research firm Berg Insight, more than 70 million people across North America and Europe will be using them by 2016.
That's a mixed blessing for families. Although proponents of the apps extol their safety benefits--one of them, SecuraFone, shuts off texting when a phone is traveling more than 5 m.p.h.--"many of these apps inadvertently send the wrong signal," says Enrique Velasco-Castillo, a mobile-tech analyst at IHS Screen Digest who has a master's in cognitive science. "It's like saying, 'I don't trust you to tell me the truth about where you are, so I will need to install this on your phone to track you.'"
Compliance too can present problems. Because the apps aren't native to phones' operating systems, resourceful teens could in theory circumvent password locks or simply uninstall them, much as they can with website-blocking software on the Internet. And many have already filled the app stores with negative reviews, which could discourage downloads. "It's wack and won't let me do anything and is blocking me from having a social life!" laments one Google Play patron of Mobiflock, which parents can use to block access to questionable apps, among other things.
For 12-year-old Gabriel Dattilo of Los Angeles, however, Life360--while certainly intrusive--is far better than the alternative: physical parental supervision. "It's hard to let go of our babies," says Gabriel's mom Jessica Denay, who plans to use the app to monitor his Halloween trick-or-treating from afar. "This makes me feel better. I know that he's safe."