Is Tracking College Kids on Their Smartphones a Good Idea?

Congratulations! Getting your child successfully through high school and off to college is something to be proud of. Now that you’ve both graduated, it’s time for the next phase in your child’s life. Along with getting an education, college is a time for young adults to learn how to manage their lives, independent of their parents. The access to an instant connection that parents, and college students have due to smartphones and social media, while convenient, can get in the way of those students developing their self-reliance and decision-making abilities.

According to the most recent 2018 Pew Research Center survey of Teens, Social Media and Technology, smartphone ownership has become a nearly ubiquitous element of teen and young adult life: 95% of teens now report they have a smartphone or access to one. These mobile connections are in turn fueling more-persistent online activities: 45% of teens say they are online on a near-constant basis.

As smartphones have become the one item teens can’t live without, more parents have come to rely on parental tracking apps and services to monitor their teen’s whereabouts and their activity on smartphones. While tracking apps may provide peace of mind for parents, using them can also impede the ability of young adults to become responsible people. These apps may also get in the way of honest conversations between parents and their children. Some parents say using these services is a sign of good parenting, yet psychologists warn that there are pros and cons, and parents should carefully weigh using them once their teens head away from home.

Aimee Hartstein, LCSW, a psychotherapist with a practice in New York City, said that while it’s a good idea to limit the time your tweens and young teens spend in front of screens and to monitor what they are doing and where they are via smartphone apps, things change when you send a child off to college. “Previous generations of college students transitioned very differently than kids today. They were allowed to fly the nest, make mistakes, stumble and pick themselves up again without their parents knowing,” said Hartstein.

Developing an adult relationship is part of the growth process for parents and college students. Parents have a right to worry about their children, and those children, in turn, have a right to privacy and the natural and essential experience of making mistakes and then fixing them. No app can teach self-reliance, ethics, morals, and other critical tools in adult life. If parents have done their job, their kids will leave for college with a definite idea of how they should behave and the importance of managing their time, so they are able to enjoy their freedom while getting an education. For most students, it can take some time before they get the hang of college life. Though it can be hard to let go, Hartstein believes that parents who continue to monitor and track their college age children, risk crossing the line from conscientious parenting to infantilizing helicopter parenting.

According to Hartstein, if your teen feels that you are always watching them and will swoop in to fix anything that goes wrong, they may develop a lack of confidence and it may make them more anxious. “Its two-fold, first, it sends a message to kids that their parents don’t feel that they can take care of themselves,” said Hartstein. “And second, it allows the young adult to abdicate responsibility for their own choices and the consequences of their actions to their parents.”

Parents who want to remain connected to their children — and what parent doesn’t — should start off with open communication. Avoiding judgmental and critical comments is key to remaining part of college students’ lives. Texting, phone calls, Facetime, even sharing photos are all ways for families to stay up to date with each other without parental intrusion on newly minted young adults’ lives. That said, Hartstein believes it’s more appropriate that parents recommend that their college age children share their location — for example when attending an off-campus party or event with a close friend, roommate or dorm resident advisor. She stresses that these apps can be useful when used in the right circumstance and situation.

“At this point in your child’s development, it’s more appropriate for one of their close friends to know their whereabouts, rather than you tracking their every move,” Hartstein explained. “Used in the right situation, it’s a smart safety tool, particularly for young women.”


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