Today, my 16-year-old newly licensed son got behind the wheel of our 2007 Ford Edge and drove himself to a friend’s house.
It was his first time driving alone as a licensed driver and his route took him down our curvy mountain road and along the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, California ― a famed 20-mile stretch of road popular with rubber-necking tourists. PCH, as locals call it, is a death trap loaded with speeders and jaywalkers and has already claimed the lives of three people in the first three months of this year.
I watched him as he made an “unauthorized” stop at the market and I knew he arrived safely at his friend’s house even before he texted to tell me that. How, you ask? Easy: I spy on my kids with a phone app that uses GPS to track their whereabouts.
Apps like the one I use are a godsend for the parents of teen drivers. The risk of car crashes among 16- to 19-year-old drivers is higher than in any other age group. Per mile driven, these teen drivers are nearly three times more likely than drivers aged 20 and older to be in a fatal crash. As much as I appreciate the intent of the new California law that makes it illegal to touch your phone while behind the wheel, I still can’t stop at a red light without seeing somebody in the next car giving their texting thumbs a workout.
Truth is, I became a card-carrying member of the parental spying club a long time ago.
I trust my kids implicitly. It’s the rest of you that have yet to earn my trust.
I began monitoring my kids’ online activity when they were preteens, tracking the games they played and the strangers they played them with. I watched what they posted on social media ― a place where inappropriately shared information lives forever and can easily come back to bite you in the bottom. I educated myself on internet slang, because if you are going to walk the walk, you also must talk the talk. And I stayed on top of my super-bright kids by knowing which apps they’d better not be using.
I believe in honesty, so I told my kids up front that wherever they went online, I’d likely be right behind them looking over their shoulders. If they had any doubts about visiting sites, all they had to do was think about whether they wanted me to find out about it.
I had the statistics on my side: Kids can mess themselves up royally on social media if they aren’t careful. College admissions officers pay attention to what prospective students post on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Post a photo with a bottle of beer in your underage hand and you are taking a risk you might not want to take.
In a Kaplan Test Prep survey of more than 350 college admissions officers in the U.S., 35 percent said they looked at applicants’ social media accounts to “learn more about them.” Forty-two percent said that what they found negatively impacted an applicant’s admissions chances. Negative discoveries included criminal offenses, photos of drug or alcohol use, racial prejudice or “inappropriate” behavior.
Knowing I could drop in on them at any time made my kids think twice about posting anything that could keep them out of college.
And of course there is the cyberbullying. According to a study by cyberbullying.org, 34 percent of middle schoolers have experienced cyberbullying. I didn’t want my kids to be on either side of the line ― victims or perpetrators.
The jump from tracking my kids online to tracking them on the road was really more of a baby step. Neither was surprised when I said I fully intended to know their whereabouts when they took the car.
The only real question for me was which app to use. I wound up with Find My Friends, although many like-minded parents spoke highly of Life360. I also checked out True Motion, which offers a driving score in addition to the standard features of showing you a GPS location. Apps to track your kids’ whereabouts are plentiful.
Both my kids are honor roll students, active in sports, good kids and kind people. I know they will do the right thing, make smart choices and use good judgment. I also know they are teenagers surrounded by temptations and it doesn’t hurt to have a handy excuse ― “my mother is watching” ― to guide them. Call it providing them with a response to peer pressure.
I also understand that adolescence is a critical time in kids’ lives, and that they need privacy and space to develop their own identities. But technology has changed everything, including parenting.
Tracking them when they drive has less to do with them and more to do with my own anxiety. Lucky for me, my kids both understand that.