My College:
Health & Safety

Should We Track Our College Kids?

David Tuttle


In my former Dean of Students role, I was aghast when I learned once from parents of a student that they were tracking him from an app on their cellphone.

Though he knew of it, this struck me as a huge breach of privacy and trust. Knowing their son was out until all hours of the night seemed invasive and, frankly, none of their business. If the student was to succeed or fail, it wouldn’t be because he was being monitored. In fact, it might even backfire, and lead to him sabotaging his own success.

My youngest child went off to college this year. She was my first to go out-of-state, and also to a large urban area, where she would be taking trains at night and be on her own in potentially dangerous situations. This was how I justified to her that I needed a tracking app on her phone.

It was only to be used in emergencies — if she couldn’t be located or she sent out an SOS signal to friends and family. We side-stepped the notion that yeah, she might go missing someday. Yikes. Being a parent is scary.

So, have I stayed true to my promise to use the app only in emergencies? No. Not even close. I don’t jump on it all the time but, unbeknownst to her, I have peeked time and again despite our agreement.

Not only am I as BAD as the parents I previously judged — I’m worse. I am hypocritical and deceitful. When I report to my wife things like, "Our daughter is at the lakefront," and she asks how I know, she simply pauses, shakes her head, and says something about my character (or lack thereof). And my daughter hasn’t picked up on random texts like “be safe around water…”

Sure, I am horrible. But when I see that dot hovering over her residence hall at the end of the night, I seem to sleep a little better.

When tracking apps like Life360 and Family Locator gained notoriety about five years ago, the debate began, and continues to surface from time to time as parents grapple with the peace-of-mind versus autonomy/privacy sides. I thought I would revisit this, as I have now seen it from both the perspective of college administrator (and advocate for student independence) and as a parent with anxiety.

Some more nuanced things to ask yourself:

1. What is the level of intrusion?

There aren't that many possibilities as to where students might be: Class, an on- or off-campus residence, a store, a restaurant, a club. Or they could be on Elm Street or over in Amityville... Their whereabouts are usually not all that interesting (believe me).

When it comes to agreeing to a tracking app, I think a legitimate fear students have is that their parents will catch them doing something they disapprove of: That is, out partying, hooking up, or shopping. For me, I simply assume my daughter may be doing these things, and I actually don’t care. I was young once. I shopped A LOT.

This is one way I justify my actions. The other is that where she is does not necessarily reflect what she is doing. I don’t have a hidden camera on her (now there’s an idea!), but knowing she is at a house off campus tells me very little. I can infer from the day and time whether she's in a study group, sharing a meal, or maybe at a party. But I don’t really know.

2. Aren’t I actually doing my kid a favor?

Oh boy, I keep digging this hole deeper. But I do sometimes feel like this is all relative. If my daughter lived at home, we would know her whereabouts most times. We are all often in regular contact with our kids, mostly by text. In our ideal worlds, we might actually talk or FaceTime on a daily basis.

One thing I have learned is to not bother her when she isn’t at home. I respect her privacy and freedom. Yes, I said that with a straight face. But in truth, I do see that I can actually be less intrusive while being, well, more intrusive.

3. Isn’t timing everything?

I can’t imagine that I'll be tracking my younger daughter much beyond her first year away at college. It is reassuring, but tiring, and has actually lost its novelty.

And you can ask my 25-year-old-daughter (though you have to wait, as I can see she is at the grocery store as I type this) who will tell you that I'll let go at some point. (It's funny how I don’t really care where my sons are. We can save that topic for another time.)

For some of us, maybe these trackers are a way to slowly let go and become comfortable with transitions.

4. What's the big picture?

In my defense, I encouraged my daughter to leave Texas. She is our only one to go out-of-state. She is doing amazing things and having transformational experiences. We are so proud of her and her independence.

I suppose we could have refused to let her go halfway across the country. But we really do value her ability to navigate the world on her own. She has always been fairly good at that, and has earned our trust. But she is my baby.

5. Isn’t this my business?

As I've read articles on this topic, I have noted a certain level of righteousness on both sides. Some can’t imagine the intrusion that this type of technology offers. They decry the erosion of trust impacting the long-term parent-child relationship. Well, their kids probably call them once in a while.

Alternately, there are those who are comfortable bulldozing, hovering and micro-managing their kids. They've poured everything into those munchkins and aren’t going to stop now.

As with most things, there might be a good place to land in between the extremes. There is probably a place where you can live with what works best for you and your student. This is about them, after all. But it’s about you, too.

In the end, it really does come down to your peace of mind versus the independence your child deserves. But they should have a say and be fully aware of whether or not you are using tracking apps. I learned that simply over the course of writing this piece. When my daughter finished her exam today, I called her to come clean. We acknowledged that one of her parents is neurotic and doesn’t respect boundaries… and the other is her mother.

She actually was okay with my breach of protocol, and was okay with me checking once in a while. We decided that if that changes, Mom would take over the tracking app for emergencies only.

Dad may yet lose his privileges, but we will see. Time will tell if he can be trusted. Go figure.

David Tuttle spent over 30 years in higher education in Residential Life and Student Affairs and has sent four children to college. He is the proprietor of a student and parent assistance service, PROsper Collegiate, LLC. Contact him at [email protected]
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