Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, PhD, an associate professor of communication at Fairleigh Dickinson University, writes about issues affecting women and social media. Her book “Over the Influence: Why Social Media Is Toxic for Women and Girls — And How We Can Take It Back” will be published by Alcove Press in 2024. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Parents are putting AirTags on their kids to keep track of them these days, according to a recent report in The Washington Post. The $29 device sold by Apple allows parents to track their children’s real-time locations — though it doesn’t always work in rural areas or places far from users of other Apple products. While many parents track their kids via their cell phones, these products allow younger kids, who may not have phones, to be monitored.
At first glance, it seems creepy to use a product that Apple clearly says isn’t meant for people or pets to monitor our children. But using this and similar technology this way, with kids’ consent, could actually protect them from far more dangerous forms of technology — and give them the independence they need to have happy childhoods and learn the skills they’ll need as adults. What’s more, the conversations necessary as a part of this process could normalize better and less uncomfortable dialogue between parents and kids about technology, safety, freedom and responsibility.
Here’s some context. Kids who are so-called “digital natives” are less likely than those in past generations to go out without their parents, Jean Twenge writes in “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.” They’re also less likely to have drivers’ licenses when they finish high school than their Boomer predecessors and less likely to work.
Kids born between 1995-2012 also spend an hour less time per day with friends than early Millennials and members of Generation X did at their age. “An hour a day less spent with friends is an hour a day less spent building social skills, negotiating relationships, and navigating emotions,” Twenge writes.
Instead, this generation is spending more time alone — which they often, of course, spend on social media. In my forthcoming book, “Over the Influence: Why Social Media is Toxic for Women and Girls – And How We Can Take it Back,” I argue that while parents may think their kids are safer at home than in the outside world, they’re often in far more danger in their bedrooms on their phones than they would be if they were allowed to go out to meet up with their friends.
On social media, kids can easily, for example, get caught up in communities promoting content that includes eating disorders and even suicide. They can be targeted by “sextortonists” — people who pretend to be a boyfriend or girlfriend, convince them to share a racy image, then threaten to post it publicly unless they engage in more online sex acts. Or they can simply get caught up in thinking that, stuck at home, their lives don’t match up to the filtered, glamorized pictures they see their friends post.
All this can help explain why, as Twenge points out, kids today are suffering from higher levels of anxiety, depression and suicide. And, of course, they’re missing out on critical skills — working, driving, negotiating relationships with other people — that will be critical to their success later in life.
The popular belief seems to be that kids want to be spending their time on social media. But when danah boyd interviewed young people, she found the opposite to be true. “Teens told me time and again that they would far rather meet up in person, but the hectic and heavily scheduled nature of their day-to-day lives, their lack of physical mobility, and the fears of their parents have made such face-to-face interactions increasingly impossible,” boyd writes in “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.”
But the thought of leaving kids unsupervised leaves many parents — including me — nervous.
“We were all raised upon the theoretical white van that pulls up with the guy with the aviators and mustache, and the side door opens and we’re pulled off a street corner,” John Bischoff, head of the Missing Children Division of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, told The Washington Post. “Statistically, it’s very rare that’s going to happen but in the same breath, it does still happen.”
Enter products that allow us to track our kids. Putting one on a kid is one way to give them more freedom to go out and explore the world on their own, giving parents the reassurance that they can usually (unless the products don’t work or kids remove them!) know where they are. This is a great option for kids in, say, middle school, who want to hang with their friends unsupervised. It can also be an especially an especially helpful tool for parents of younger kids with autism, who commonly wander away from their caregivers.
I believe kids should be told when they’re being tracked, which offers an important prompt for more open communication between parents and kids about freedom and independence, technology and rules and boundaries — which should, of course, expand as kids grow older. Conversations about how trackers can be used for good (finding lost luggage) or bad (stalking people) would also be an opportunity to improve kids’ awareness of the complicated nature of technology and our need to stay vigilant in order to protect ourselves from its dangers and downsides.
Of course, there are plenty of ways these devices could also be used for nefarious purposes for kids too — such as, for example, if someone else were to put one on your child. Last year, Apple said it was rolling out software to make people more aware of when they were being tracked by AirTags they didn’t know about. But that wouldn’t work if the person didn’t have a phone. So, trackers should also vibrate on a regular basis, so that if they’re placed on a person or in their possessions, the person quickly realizes it.
Trackers aren’t a fail-safe because they can’t be guaranteed to work, but particularly in populated areas, they’re a way to give parents added reassurance to allow our kids to go out and explore the world more on their own as they grow up. This won’t just make them happier — it could also keep them safer than they would be at home. I’m glad there’s an app for this.