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Should Parents Use Cell Phones to Monitor Teens?

worried woman looking at her phone

Q. I've heard of devices on cell phones that can track owners' whereabouts, and I've considered these for my son, age 11, and daughter, age 17.

I want my kids to have freedom and be safe, of course, but I'm not sure if cell phones alone will provide the protection I'm seeking. Plus, couldn't a child just turn the phone off if they didn't want the parent to trace their steps?

A. In today's scary world, it seems as if this could be the protection parents have been looking for. Let's say your 11-year-old son is going on a long bike ride with a friend, so they take along your cell phone just in case they need help. Not only could they call you if necessary, but with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) equipped on many mobile phones today, your son and his friend could also be located easily if they called 911. Plus, if you subscribed to an additional service, you could track the boys' exact location from your computer.

Or consider this: If your daughter is driving herself and three friends to a concert, she could map out exactly how to locate the concert location and get back home, just by using her equipped cell phone. And with an additional software package, you could track her whereabouts for the entire evening.

A Fallible Plan

Such tracking devices, however, have drawbacks parents need to be aware of. If the boys urgently needed help during their bike ride, it might be too late by the time someone found them. And if they wanted to, the concert-going girls could deviate from the established itinerary and go to a party after the show -- they could turn off the phone or leave it in their own car and drive with someone else.

Cell phones and their accompanying programs are tools for parenting children safely today, but they not foolproof. Nothing takes the place of a well-established parent-child relationship based on love and trust. Also, parents need the confidence that their children -- 10-year-olds to teenagers -- have the experience and intellectual judgment to manage the environments in which they're placed, only using the cell phone as a backup safety device.

The mobile phone is neither a babysitter nor a watchdog. Its protective uses are limited to the skill and willingness on the part of a child to carry and use it wisely. If you do decide to let your kids use these phones and devices, don't rely solely on them for protection. Your children need you watching them -- technology will never take the place of your time, attention, eyes, and ears when overseeing your child's whereabouts.

Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of two parenting books, Mommy, I Have to Go Potty and Unplugging Power Struggles. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for HealthyKids.com, and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times newspaper. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.

Originally published on HealthyKids.com, December 2004.