Life360 is an app that lets you track a mobile phone user in fine-grained, realtime detail, with options to set alert for things like "is this person exceeding the speed limit?" It's widely used by parents to track their teens, and this seems to be the summer where it comes into its own, with millions of families around the world relying on it to act as a kind of remote leash for their kids.
In response, teens have begun to fill the meme-heavy, kid-centric social app Tiktok (previously) with short videos deploring Life360, offering tips for evading it, and complaining about how their parents use it.
Life360 is an excellent example of how the most important thing about a tool isn't what it does, but who it does it for and who it does it to. My family uses a similar tool (built into Android) sometimes when we're at Disneyland: it means that if you want to split up and then rendezvous later, you don't have to call your kid to find out where they are (which might be inside a ride, where they can't answer the phone), and instead, you can just head over and meet them. Similarly, when my daughter first started walking home from school, we made an arrangement that she'd text us when she left and turn on the location-tracker until she got home, which reassured both her and us.
But expanding that into a system of fine-grained, continuous surveillance that comes complete with alerts that warn you to call your kids and give them hell if they go outside of a certain perimeter or are inside a moving vehicle that exceeds the posted limit by 1mph turns a convenience into a totalitarian nightmare.
And as with stalkerware, this kind of thing is a godsend to abusers, who can automate much of the labor that goes into being a creepy, violent, terrible person.
Meanwhile, Life360 makes a lot of its money by selling your kids' private data to advertisers. And, ironically, Tiktok is also a surveillance-heavy app with ties to the Chinese state and military.
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.
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.”
On TikTok, Teens Meme the Safety App Ruining Their Summer [Louise Matsakis/Wired]