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Should You Spy on Your Teen with Technology?

How To Keep Track Of Your Teen With Tracking Devices

When Peggy Stein of Towson, Md., went to Ocean City as part of senior week in 1980, her parents simply had to trust her to stay out of trouble. With advances in technology that allow parents to track their teenagers through their cellular phones or in-vehicle global positioning systems (GPS), parents such as Stein might not know what their teenagers are doing, but they know where they are. "I have a good child, but she does have a wild steak like her mother [when] I was a teenager," Stein says. "I know exactly what I did. You build trust. I trust my daughter, but there is peer pressure."

Stein, who owns SignalTrac, an in-vehicle GPS, with Vicki Lewis, says she felt secure allowing her 18-year-old daughter Kelly to go to Ocean City, because she received a report of the position of her car and real-time alerts if her daughter entered or left a certain area. Stein plans to keep tabs on her other teenager, Caitlin, 13, when she is old enough to drive.

Under the Dashboard

Since SignalTrac is a Web-based application, parents may log onto the Internet and view a report of their teenager's location, history and driving speed. If your teenager skips school, you receive an e-mail alert letting you know he or she has left the area of the school. The device goes under the dashboard and can be placed covertly. But Stein asserts that the device is a safety feature and not a tool for spying. "As long as your name is on the car, there is no privacy," Stein says. "You don't have a problem with stalking. As long as your name is on the car and you are the title owner, you are allowed to put this unit in."

What About Trust?

But some parenting experts disagree. Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist in Millis, Mass., and co-author of Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We Are Going to Grandma's: Hanging In, Holding On and Letting Go of Your Teen (Unlimited Publishing, 2003), says the issue boils down to a person's parenting philosophy. Kendrick has a 29-year-old daughter and 27-year-old son. "Are you trying to control your kids or are you trying to build relationships with them?" he says. "All these attempts to spy on kids – whether it's GPS in cars, whether it's cameras hidden in radios in kids' rooms, whether it's checking on who has called them on their cell phone and reading their diaries, their blogs – are astonishing to me in a cautionary way."

Kendrick, who also cautions parents against testing their teenagers for drugs, says spying on your teenagers increases rebellion. He says childhood is about hanging on and letting go for both children and parents. He acknowledges that some parents resort to tracking devices because they are frightened of a changing world.

"Certainly in small-town America where I grew up, it was kind of hard to get away with things, because people knew you," he says. "Kids are certainly on their own a heck of a lot more in the after-school hours, and this is when most kids are going to do dope, have sex and do the things parents are worried about."

Instead of spying on your teenagers, be honest and communicate often, but don't try scare tactics, he says. As a therapist, he tells people to treat your children with as much respect as you treat your best adult friend. "It's this whole notion of parents seeing their job is to control these out-of-control, hormone-flushed, risk-taking creatures that are called teenagers," he says. "I think kids are really viewing themselves as being in some kind of quasi-penal institution as opposed to a family."

Cellular Spying and Emergencies

While some parents struggle with whether they can be both a friend and parent to a teenager, some parents have no trouble creating boundaries while building trust. Frank Schroth, a uLocate spokesman in Milton, Mass., has two teenagers, 16 and 18. He uses the uLocate technology, which is based on GPS cellular phones, when his teenagers go on school trips, but not every time they leave the home. "It's one more way of getting some reassurance that everything is OK," he says.

Schroth also says that most parents with children between the ages of 12 and 17 like the technology, although their children may be resistant at first. "Generally the way it gets negotiated between parents and teenagers is simply you are given the privilege to have a cell phone, and in exchange for that, we want the opportunity to know where you are so you can be safe and are where you are supposed to be," he says. "The application can be turned on and off at will, so there has to be kind of an understanding established. And then, again, after the initial resistance, it's like, 'Whatever, it's not a big deal.'"

Parents may train their children to use the technology so they may be safe in emergencies such as a kidnapping. However, it's not fail proof. The phone has to be on, and the application has to be running for it to be of any use. "GPS signals only work outdoors," Schroth says. "It provides a level of reassurance. It's not something that is going to be 100 percent bullet proof."

While parents can keep better tabs on their teenagers through cars or cellular phones, experts say it's best to be honest and communicate with teenagers. Don't fall victim to false security. On the other hand, technology can be a blessing. Unlike reading a child's diary, e-mail or spying with a hidden camera, tracking devices can protect teenagers from kidnappers and other dangerous situations when they are out on their own. In the end, it's your call.

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