Sharing locations with your friends, family and significant others through apps like Find My Friends and Snapchat is a new norm, which affects human relationships in a number of kooky and unexpected ways.
Young people surrender their privacy with ease, not always thinking through the ramifications of others having real-time info as to their whereabouts. The ability to know where everyone is can lead to parental fury (“I TOLD you not to go to that house!”) and reveal dishonesty and infidelity. Stalkers and bosses use location apps to track down victims and monitor the routes and behavior of employees. A small 2016 survey published in Australia found that 17 percent of victims who have endured stalking or physical abuse were tracked via location apps, according to the New York Times. Yet, location apps can also be used to thwart crimes from phone theft to kidnapping.
Although little data exists to show what percent of cell phone users utilize the location sharing features of their mobile devices, there are over 1,000 apps that have location-sharing code without our knowledge, according to 2018 data from MightySignal. While the data is usually used to adjust marketing efforts based on consumer behaviors, there is a creepy Big Brother aspect to having one’s phone serve as a stealth location broadcaster.
The apps can be used not just to find missing phones, but missing people.
Senior business major Emma Bottger shares her location with 50 people on Find My Friends. Her followers are comprised of high school friends, Chapman friends and her parents, who require her to share her location with them, though Bottger doesn’t think they know how to use it.
“Location tracking creates an illusion of security,” leading people to believe that because they know where their friends and family are, they’re safe, said Ashleigh Louis, a Licenced Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and part-time lecturer. But a dot on a screen doesn’t really guarantee anything, she continued. “You don’t have control over anybody,” she said.
Parental subsidies for cell phones often come along with requirements that students share locations with the people paying for their data.
“Parents have a right to the things they’re paying for,” Louis said. There’s a negotiation between parents and their children that needs to take place when deciding if location services are to be enabled within the family, Louis said. If a child doesn’t want to comply with their parents’ request to share their location, they should get a job to pay for their own cell phone, she said.
“In a perfect world, parents wouldn’t need to demand that from their kids, because trust has to be the foundation of the relationship,” Louis said.
Forcing children to share their locations can convey that you don’t trust them, noted the director of Chapman’s Frances Smith Center for Individual and Family Therapy Susan Jester, LMFT. While location tracking can provide a sense of safety and control for parents, it’s only one piece of trying to ensure a child’s safety and good behavior, Jester said.
Location apps are no substitute for the development of trust, or good interpersonal relationships between parents and their children, said Jester. “With kids who are getting in trouble, being able to track them, although it may be helpful, doesn’t fix what’s going on with them. It’s like a disembodied tool that isn’t addressing what the underlying problem is,” Jester said.
Children know how to outsmart snoopy parents in respect to technology on their mobile devices, so if they have something to hide, they will find ways to turn off their location or leave their phone in places their parents want them to be. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Jester said.
Junior business major Cassie White also shares her location with her parents, who pay for her phone. She doesn’t have a problem with it. Her mother feels more secure knowing that she can locate her daughter in case of an emergency. “I have nothing to hide,” White said.
About 200 apps and services that offer services that promote stalker behaviors, including basic location tracking, viewing text messages and even secretly recording videos, according to a 2018 academic study by IPV Tech Research. These capabilities require access to the victims’ phones or passwords, which makes them most commonly used in romantic relationships.
Though White did have some things to hide. Using “Find My Friends,” one of White’s friends caught White spending the night at the home of a guy that both women liked. White refrained from talking about the tryst for fear of hurting her friend, but “Find My Friends” had already busted her. In the end, they were able to patch up their friendship.
While some couples share their locations almost immediately after cementing a bond, others treat it as a milestone that must be earned over time, similar to giving your significant other a house key or moving in together.
“There’s no such thing as a right timeline in relationships. Some people fall in love and move in together in a month, and some people really shouldn’t do that,” Louis said. It’s not “when” that’s important about sharing locations with your significant other; it’s “why.” “For it to be healthy, it can’t come from an insecure place,” she said.
There’s not a specific amount of time in relationships when sharing locations becomes acceptable, but if you do choose to share locations with someone, there first needs to be a conversation about the reasons why you’re sharing it, Jester said.
“People should consider: How is it going to benefit me? Are there any reasons that it might cause me problems? How would I feel about this person being able to know where I am at any time? Is this really what I want? Asking yourself these kinds of questions is extremely important” to ensure location tracking won’t become problematic in the relationship, Jester said.
Revoking your location from an ex-lover is similar to decision of unfollowing or unfriending them on social media.
Junior public relations and advertising major Nora Viarnes shared her location with a boyfriend a month into their relationship. It didn’t seem like a big deal and “we were always together, so neither of us used it much.” But then they broke up. When her boyfriend stopped sharing his location with her, she realized all hope was gone. “That was the moment I realized ‘wow, this is really happening. We’re actually breaking up,’” Viarnes said.
Viarnes often vented to her friends about her post-breakup struggles, so naturally they acquired a second-hand dislike for her ex-boyfriend. Yet, Viarnes continued seeing her ex-boyfriend from time to time, and she tried to be sneaky by turning her location off so that none of her friends could see she was at his house.
“I thought I was being sly, but I wasn’t fooling anyone. My location being turned off was a clear indicator to my friends that I was at his house,” she said. Her friends, being active Find My Friends users, gave her a hard time about continuing to be with a man they believed to be bad for her.
The ability to see where others are can also result in TMI revelations. Bottger found herself feeling insecure and jealous when a man she was seeing was also dating other women and began checking his location obsessively. When she saw him at a location she didn’t recognize, she accused him of seeing another woman. He insisted he was just visiting a “homie.”
“I wonder what the fate of our relationship would’ve had been if we hadn’t shared locations with each other,” Bottger said. “Realistically, we wouldn’t have had that fight if I wasn’t tracking his location, and this fight is what caused things to slowly fizzle out for us.”
“When location tracking starts being used in a more possessive type of way, that’s problematic,” Louis said.
But location apps can also validate suspicions and provide proof positive people aren’t crazy. Jester has a client who used location tracking to confirm her husband’s affair. He denied seeing other women – but the app doesn’t lie.
Some people see the failure to share locations as a red flag. Sophomore broadcast journalism major Brandon Pike is very selective with whom he shares his location with, because he’s had some friends abuse it, he said. “I don’t like the idea of people keeping tabs on me,” he said.
“These are friendships, not the FBI,” Louis said. There should be nothing problematic about somebody saying that they don’t want to be tracked, she added.
But used properly, location apps in some instances can help respect privacy. White, who shares her location with 26 of her friends and checks the Find My Friends app about three times a day, finds the service convenient. “I typically check my friends’ location before I text or call them,” she said. “If I see someone is at the gym or at work, I’ll wait until they’ve gotten home to call them.” This saves her the unnecessary stress of wondering why people haven’t replied to her.
Then there is the “life-saving” function of apps that help locate lost hikers, missing kids and people who are abducted.
When Bottger went clubbing with her friends over the summer, she noticed one of her friends being carried out of the venue by a man she believed to be a bouncer. Bottger rounded up some of the young women she came with to let them know that their friend had been escorted out. After comparing notes, they realized the guy wasn’t a bouncer at all.
The group used Find My Friends to track their friend to an apartment complex in North Hollywood and called police to retrieve their friend, who Bottger believed would have otherwise come to harm.
“Despite the drama location tracking has caused me at times, I’m very thankful that it saved my friend,” Bottger said.