Parents’ Guide to Phone Tracking Apps

Desktop with a tablet showing a GPS location.

More parents are choosing to add tracking apps to their teens’ phones. There are a number of reasons for that, from safety concerns to disciplinary motives. 

How do Phone Tracking Apps Work?

If you’re the parent of a teenager and you’re thinking of installing a tracking app on your teen’s phone, what do you need to know first? How do the apps work? How do they help? Are there drawbacks to using them? How should your use of the app change as your teen gets older? Take a look at a helpful guide to phone tracking apps for parents. 

When you install a tracking app or a parental monitoring app with tracking features on your teen’s phone, what’s really happening? Most tracking apps use the GPS or Global Positioning System, which is a network of satellites that circle the earth, collecting location data from various angles and distances. GPS receivers compile the data, calculate an estimate of the user’s position and transmit it to software or apps. 

Different software and apps have different capabilities. Most new cell phones come with their own GPS software installed, but this often can only give a position within a certain radius, not an exact location. Tracking software or apps that you pay for are more sensitive and able to give a more accurate and exact position. 

How Can Phone Tracking Apps Help Parents?

The ability to track your teen’s smartphone can be helpful in a number of different scenarios. Often, parents of young teens or pre-teens consider installing tracking apps in the first place in order to find lost phones. Children aren’t always great at keeping track of their possessions, and smartphones can be expensive. A tracking app can save a lot of money simply by enabling you to locate a missing phone. 

Parents also use tracking apps to keep tabs on their child’s whereabouts. It’s common for teens to sometimes fail to be entirely truthful about where they’re going and who they’re seeing. Sometimes this is part of growing up, but it can still be dangerous. Teens are impulsive and sometimes make poor choices that affect their lives in negative ways. Parents may be able to prevent their teens from getting off track by ensuring that they are where they say they are. 

Finally, some parents install tracking apps primarily for safety reasons. Finding the phone often means finding the phone’s owner as well, and a tracking app means that in a worst-case scenario – if their teen is ever lost, injured, or taken – they may be able to use the GPS to find their teen. 

In one recent North Carolina case, a mother was able to locate her missing teen using a tracking app. The girl had missed her curfew because, as it turns out, she’d been in a car accident. Thanks to the tracking app, the mother was able to locate her daughter, and the car, down a 25-foot embankment. The teenager was trapped underneath the car, but alive and expected to recover. 

Are There Drawbacks to Tracking Apps?

Despite the benefits of tracking apps, there are a number of criticisms as well. Many people see the kind of constant GPS tracking that comes with these apps as a privacy concern, and adults are often divided on how much privacy teenagers should be entitled to. 

Some parents feel that teens aren’t entitled to any secrecy or privacy when it comes to their location or to the smartphones that their parents pay for. Others believe that once teens reach a certain age or maturity level, they’re entitled to have private lives that their parents can’t arbitrarily check in on. And there are a number of opinions in between. 

Teens themselves have a range of options on tracking technology. Some see the safety benefits, while others might resent what they see as being spied upon. Teens who find out after the fact that there is tracking software on their phones might be especially likely to feel betrayed or feel as if their privacy has been invaded. 

Talking to Teens About Tracking Apps

Woman standing outside with a backpack looking at her phone.

Most experts suggest that if you’re going to install a tracking app on your teen’s phone, the best course of action is to be honest about it. Tell your teen what it is that you’re doing and why. Whether you’re worried about keeping your teen safe, making sure that they’re telling you the truth about where they’re going, or just keeping track of the phone itself, your teen should know what you’re installing and why. 

Remind your teen that it’s your prerogative as a parent to set boundaries and limits on their devices and to take steps to protect them from any dangers. Emphasize that you’re not interested in using the software to spy on your teen’s actions or control them unnecessarily, but that you do have to keep them safe and to enforce rules. 

You may also want to consider how your use of tracking apps might change over time as your teen gets older and more mature as well. You may need to check in frequently on the whereabouts of a rebellious 14-year-old, but not as much with a responsible 17-year-old. 

It may well be worth leaving the apps on the phone even for older teens and even college-aged adults, just because of the possibility of unexpected events, like a car accident, where being able to locate your child through an app could be a legitimate lifesaver. 

But by those ages, it’s probably not necessary or desirable to track your child’s every movement. Every family is different, and the level of tracking that a specific teen needs is best left to their parents to decide. But the goal should be to gradually reduce the need for supervision as your child reaches adulthood while leaving in place common-sense safety precautions that are useful for everyone, even adults. 

Understanding more about how parental monitoring software and tracking apps work can help you make better decisions about what will work best for your teen and your family. If you’d like to learn more,  get our risk free trial.