Spend enough time on the social media app TikTok, and you’re bound to see a Life360 meme. That’s because Life360, a location-sharing app aimed at families, is apparently ruining the lives of teenagers all across the United States. The service allows parents to track their kids’ whereabouts in real time, among other features. As one girl with long blond hair jokes in a popular TikTok clip, it’s set her summer vacation on fire. Some of the videos have racked up hundreds of thousands of likes—in other words, they’re relatable.
That’s because for many adolescents, adult supervision has turned into adult surveillance. Schools are adopting facial recognition technology to monitor campuses. Parents can now remotely check their child’s browsing histories and social media accounts, watch their movements via motion-sensing cameras, and track everywhere they go with location-sharing apps. In a Pew Research Center study last year, 58 percent of US parents said they sometimes or often look at their teenager’s messages, call logs, and the websites they visit. In a separate study from 2016, 16 percent said they used location-sharing apps.
Life360 is one of the many digital monitoring tools now used by millions of parents in the United States. The app functions like an enhanced version of Apple’s “Find My” feature that lets you share your location with friends or family—or what the company calls “your Circle.” In addition to location-sharing, Life360 lets family members see how fast people in their circle are driving, how much battery their cell phones have, and more. The service is free to download and use, although you can pay for additional features. According to the San Francisco-based company, Life360 had over 18 million monthly active users at the end of 2018.
Apps like Life360 can give kids and parents a sense of security, but they also raise questions about privacy and children’s autonomy. And on TikTok, teenagers are discussing and debating them. Videos with the hashtag #Life360 have been viewed there over 13 million times. In some of the most popular clips, teens share with each other strategies for circumventing the app, usually by turning off various phone settings. Other videos are less practical, and serve more as a form of venting. In one recording with over 30,000 likes, a photo of Life360’s founder and CEO Chris Hulls appears on screen, while a rap song with the lyrics “Snitch, snitch, the snitch, the snitch, snitch” plays.
“I think it’s completely unfair and detrimental to teenagers if their parents use this app on them regularly,” says a 16-year-old boy from Texas, who like all the young people in this story, was contacted via social media and requested anonymity to talk freely about their family. “I spend most of my time texting my parents about what’s going on, rather than spending time with my friends.”
Other teens are more understanding of their parents’ use of the app, but think Life360 is too invasive. “If I am going a little over the speed limit on the freeway just to keep up with traffic, my parents freak out,” said a 16-year-old girl from California. “I understand where my parents are coming from, but I believe that the app has too many features that make it over the top.”
Life360’s COO David Rice argues these teenagers represent a vocal minority. “Teens who take issue with Life360 are often the loudest, but in reality a vast majority of teens are okay with location sharing,” he said in an email. The practice has “become the new norm for today’s digitally native families.”
It’s true that not every young person resents constantly sharing their whereabouts with their parents. “Using the app makes me feel kind of safe honestly,” said a 21-year-old girl from California. “And like me and my younger brother don’t lie to our parents, so if they call after checking the app, we always say where we are, but it’s just there for them to have it just in case we don’t call and check in.”
There isn’t one correct way to parent, and tools like Life360 can make the often difficult process of raising a teenager easier. Adults today are often already more active in managing their kids’ lives, even while researchers have found that adolescents are having less sex, attending fewer parties, and abstaining in greater numbers from drugs and alcohol than previous generations.
But location-sharing apps also provoke thorny questions about how much privacy children and young adults are entitled to. “Our legal system gives strong deference to parental freedoms and parental rights,” said Stacy Steinberg, a professor at the University of Florida Law School and the director of its Center on Children and Families. (There are at least some regulations to protect children’s personal information from corporations, like the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, and Life360’s policies state that it doesn’t use data from kids under 13 for marketing or advertising.)
Even if it’s totally legal for a parent to track their children, some experts have urged parents to consider how they go about it, and the impact it could have on their teen’s trust or their ability to practice independence. “[My parents] sometimes don’t let me do the simplest things, such as stopping to get ice cream on my own or stopping by friends’ houses to stay hello,” said an 18-year-old girl from Florida. “Before Life360, I’d do harmless things like these without letting my parents know, but now they have access to my every step.” Life360 can also add unnecessary stress; one teen asked WIRED to end an interview early because just talking about the app caused them anxiety.
“Location sharing has become the new norm for today’s digitally native families.”
David Rice, Life 360
Sarita Yardi Schoenebeck, a professor at the University of Michigan and the director of its Living Online Lab, is less concerned with how parents use Life360, than with the app’s business model. Life360 generates income mainly through premium subscriptions, which come with additional safety features like roadside assistance for drivers. But almost a quarter of the company’s revenue comes not from users directly, but through the use of their data for things like advertising or partnerships with other companies. It’s a “freemium” model that’s common among online services, but one that has come under more scrutiny in recent years.
“The model is driven by economics and capitalism and less so by families’ well-being,” Schoenebeck said. “It seems like time and time again, [these apps] are designed to surveil people without incorporating any kind, or very little, research on child development.”
Other researchers have sounded the alarm about how location-sharing apps can be abused to spy on or stalk victims. Rice said that Life360 “takes these issues very seriously,” and has “built in features for our members to easily turn location tracking off.” When asked if Life360 consulted with experts on children’s privacy or domestic abuse for its app, COO Rice said the company has worked with a family psychologist and a former Secret Service agent.
“Life360 was founded with the mission to help families better coordinate and stay protected,” Rice said. “We believe in open communication and complete transparency, which is why Life360 ensures that all members see the same information in real time. We encourage families to use the app together.” He stressed Life360 only stores location information for 30 days before it’s deleted.
The company may say its mission is to help families, but it’s also a business—one that is trying to grow. Life360 quietly went public on the Australian Securities Exchange in May of this year. Its prospectus claims that the company has “amassed one of the world’s largest digital audiences of security-conscious family units and we have deep insights into these Users in a way that was not possible before the smartphone. We know where our Users live, work, shop, drive and more.”
Most parents probably don’t envision any of this when they download the app; they’re just looking for a way to keep an eye on their children. Or, sometimes, teens are looking for a way to keep an eye on their parents. One 17-year-old in Iowa claims she installed the app on her mother’s phone without her knowledge, so that she could sneak out and ensure she returned home before her parent. “I remembered seeing a Life360 ad so when we was gathered around taking pictures at a birthday party, I asked to see the pics and just downloaded it,” she said. “Hid the app into a bunch of files and was good to go.”