Growing up in the '80s, the only way my parents could track my whereabouts involved old-fashioned detective work (i.e., getting in the car and driving around looking for me). This may have happened on more than one occasion during my errant, curfew-breaking teenage years, as my dad likes to remind me.
Today, it’s a whole new world. We can keep tabs on our kids through their smartphones, GPS watches, Bluetooth wristbands and tiny gadgets that pop into pockets or backpacks. Microchipping for kids isn’t a thing yet… but never say never.
Most parents have no qualms about tracking their toddlers and young kids (my stomach still churns when I remember losing my 4-year-old son in the supermarket for five minutes, which felt like decades), but shadowing teenagers' day-to-day habits may raise a few ethical concerns.
Ultimately, it’s your call to make as a parent. Every child is different, and some require closer monitoring than others — for their own safety. Most teenagers have smartphones, and turning on Find My Friends on iOS (free and automatically installed on iOS 9 or later) or Familonet on Android (also free) doesn’t have to be made into a big deal.
“Find My Friends is a great safety feature that I use with my friends when they go on blind dates, so I see no issue with teaching your kids how to use it safely too,” psychologist Dr. Katie Davis tells SheKnows. “While you're at it, share your location with your kid so they can see where you are too, and it won't be so invasive. In the past, we used to call our parents when we got to our destination to let them know where we were. This doesn't seem so, so different to me. It's important to know where your kids are.”
For Stacie Hopkin, a mom of four from Boston, Massachusetts, the key to making kid-tracking work is honesty. “We tracked our teen for one month without their knowledge and felt terrible about it, so we realized we had to talk about it,” she said. “Our teen lied big-time, which we discovered using the phone tracking. We used that as an opportunity to start a conversation and framed it as a safety thing. It felt far better to be open and honest, and our child actually felt OK about it. It helped foster dialog we’d all been struggling with.”
If you've decided you're looking for a kid-tracker for a younger child — or something beyond "Find My Friends" for a teen, there are a few apps and gadgets on the market you can choose from.
SafeWise rates the AngelSense Kids GPS Tracker, which works throughout the entire U.S. and Canada, as their best overall wearable tracker for kids. Its two-way voice function lets you speak to your child at any time without having to press buttons or click on anything first. It also has a listen-in function so you can hear exactly what’s going on around your child at any point. You can follow your child’s route home on a real-time map and get data updates every 30 seconds, ensuring you’re always up to date. The device costs $99 and monthly fees start at about $30, varying depending on whether you pay up front or in installments.
The hereO 2 GPS watch also gets rave reviews from parents. Designed for kids age 3-plus, it lets parents track their kids’ whereabouts from the hereO family smartphone app (available on iOS and Android). It’s durable enough to withstand boisterous play, fits comfortably even on smalls wrists and comes in a range of bright colors. Parents are alerted if the watch is removed (the lock feature prevents kids from doing this). Downsides are the upfront cost ($199) and the absence of two-way calling. A free six-month subscription is included; thereafter the monthly subscription is $4.95.
The Jiobit is a small, lightweight, discrete device with fully encrypted location tracking (although it has no phone capabilities) designed for small children. It uses Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS cellular triangulation to ensure accuracy and can be attached almost anywhere. Its “live mode” tells you exactly where your kids are (classroom, playground, cafeteria, etc.) and its “follow me mode” alerts you if your child has strayed too far away — great for shopping malls and other crowded places. The device costs $129.99 with a no-contract monthly subscription of $7.99 or $99.99 with a yearly contract of $9.99 per month.
My Buddy Tag relies on Bluetooth and an iOS or Android app to help you track your toddler. You can put it on their wrist, loop it onto their shoelace or slip it into a pocket or backpack. The app lets you set distance limits for your child, and when they wander too far, an alarm goes off on your linked smartphone. My Buddy Tag also helps prevent accidental drowning by sending an alert if it’s submerged underwater for 10 seconds or more. The device costs $39, and there’s no monthly fee.
Of course, plenty of parents — even the ones who are interested in keeping tabs on their kids — don't need tracking devices at all since their kids' social media accounts give them all the info they could ever want. “I just watch my kid’s location on Snapchat,” revealed Tina Plantamura, a mom of three from Ocean Grove, New Jersey. “I can even tell what part of the building he’s in!”
Tracking young kids can make sense — especially if you've ever momentarily lost a child in a mall, park or another public place — but keep in mind that it's more of a gray area for teenagers. Just make sure to be upfront with your kid about your intentions and ensure they understand that you're keeping an eye our for their safety — not to invade their privacy.