“One of the biggest risks these technologies pose is they make us more neurotic,” says Pamela Wisniewski, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida whose research focuses on the intersection of human-computer interaction, social computing, and privacy. “If all we’re getting is metadata that someone isn’t where we expect them to be, that can make us anxious.” It can even cause us to leap to erroneous conclusions that sabotage our daily activities.
While these technologies are intended to mitigate risk, at their worst, tracking apps can trigger problematic false alarms when there’s a glitch. Take the time I saw my mom seemingly stuck two blocks from her home. When I realized her location hadn’t moved in 30 minutes, I worried she had taken a spill while walking the dog. It turns out her battery died while she was strolling through the neighborhood.
“We have this sort of magical thinking that if we know where our loved ones are, we can somehow save them from a dangerous world,” says David Greenfield, PhD, ABPP, and founder and director of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. The apps are marketing to our primal fear of disconnecting from our loved ones. But is the benefit of perceived safety worth the excess anxiety? Or is there more bliss in ignorance?
Consider Tracking Pitfalls
The truth is, there are legitimate reasons why you might not want someone to track your every move. “It could be as virtuous as someone wanting to buy a surprise gift for a loved one, or maybe something a little risky, like a teen wanting to be alone with her boyfriend,” says Wisniewski. “To some extent, that boundary-pushing, that privacy, is healthy, particularly during the teenage years.”
Each socially rewarding reason to use tracking tech comes with a privacy-related or anxiety-inducing consequence. The most obvious pitfall: Tracking breeds a lack of trust, especially when it’s used to police kids’ behavior.
“You’re not only feeding your own anxiety, but you’re also communicating that you don’t think your kid can hack it in the real world without your help—and that can have devastating consequences for you, your child, and your relationship,” Greenfield says. It can even impact their ability to successfully launch into adulthood.
For example, kids who are tracked may not become as self-reliant as their untracked counterparts. “Children develop a sense of confidence when they’re encouraged to go out into the world without safety nets,” says Greenfield. “They make mistakes, trip and fall, run out of gas, and they become more competent as a result.”
Experts agree that trust, privacy, and the opportunity to make mistakes—and grow from them—trump the sense of perceived safety we get from consistent monitoring. “If you’re using geo-tracking to find out if your kid is on his way home so you can start making dinner, that’s a healthy use,” says Wisniewski. “But if it gets to the point of obsessive monitoring, that’s unhealthy surveillance.”
What’s more concerning: Tracking technologies could place your loved ones at greater risk. When teens know parents are following their every move, they may find ways to disable location-sharing, Wisniewski says. They buy burner phones, remove batteries from their devices, power down. Then, in a true emergency, even the police can’t pinpoint their exact location.
Pause Before Stalking
Once I recognized the angst that came with tracking, I decided to take a different approach. Instead of gripping tighter to gain more control, I identified ways to surrender and let go.
“The idea is to interrupt the addictive and unconscious impulse to react to our ‘not knowing what to do with ourselves’ feeling,” Colier says. “More often than not, tracking and constant communication is a way to avoid the silence of spending time with ourselves.”