Is it ethical to use Find-My-iPhone to track your kids?
Posted August 16, 2017
Recently I was at a party and a good friend asked me how my children were doing. When she asked, it so happens I was holding my phone and tracking my son using Find My iPhone. I needed to know where he was so we could get to the bus station on time to pick him up, and it was easier tracking than texting. I showed my friend my phone screen and explained how Find My iPhone works (it tracks phones, but since people are glued to their phones, it also tracks people). But I also instantly worried that I was revealing something I needed to defend. Had I revealed a bad habit, a guilty pleasure?
My husband and I first started tracking our son and daughter (who are twins) two years ago, when they went away to college. It certainly makes sense to me that we were inclined to do this. I'm fond of Elizabeth Stone's popular adage about being a parent: having a child is "to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." In other words, your child is a part of you, in some sense, but also separate from you. Something like that idea can also be found in Aristotle, who says that our children are like second selves to us, but also separate. Robert Nozick, a contemporary philosopher, expresses much the same idea when he calls children "a part of a wider identity you have" and a "part of one's substance."
If those descriptions capture the parent-child relationship—and I argue that they do, in my book The Philosophical Parent— it's no wonder that I felt an urge to know where they were, when one child moved from Dallas to Pittsburgh and the other moved down to Austin. It's hard enough having your heart walking around across town, but when your heart is 200 to 1,200 miles away, it's a real challenge.
We established Find My iPhone family sharing, with our children's permission, and then tried not to over-use the privilege. But despite those provisos, if I am honest with myself, I have to say that tracking an adult child is a little problematic. Dressing up that sentiment in formal clothing, you might even say it's prima facie wrong (though to be sure, not a huge wrong). In other words, tracking an adult child is wrong on the surface or in some respect, but not wrong in an absolute sense. It can be okay to do something that's prima facie wrong if you have a good enough reason, but if you have no reason, the wrongness stands undefeated.
But why see it this way—why think there's anything wrong with tracking adult children, especially considering it takes the child's consent to do it? The main problem is that consenting to being tracked gives others the power to track you at any time. Thus, a person's usual privacy as to their whereabouts is lost. Yes, the child consents to this, but they may not feel free to refuse, and also may not be realistic about how often they'll be tracked. It's also true that what starts innocently enough can lead to intrusive behavior, if you stumble on something surprising or concerning about your child's whereabouts.
So what sorts of reasons can defeat the prima facie wrongness of child-tracking? Clearly, if tracking adult children were crucial for the sake of their safety, that would be a respectable reason to do it. But I can't say that was my reason, except extremely rarely. The truth is that I've used Find My iPhone to track my kids for the sake of convenience—the bus station example. Also, to cope with the angst of separation—the college example. Also, to soothe worries—they're safe on a long car trip, as long as that phone icon is moving. But I've also done it just for fun and out of curiosity. It was a lot of fun following along as my daughter travelled all over Israel last year and as both kids drove to Colorado last week.
These are fairly unimpressive reasons, but they're perhaps strong enough to defeat the badness of denying children privacy if tracking is limited to times when children suspect they might be being tracked. My son knew he was being tracked on the bus, and our kids know we tend to track their progress when they're traveling. It's also important to resist being intrusive, should you accidentally find out something that concerns you in a not-life-or-death way.
That's about all I've figured out about the ethics of tracking, but reasonable people may disagree. I'm curious how many people use Find My iPhone to track their kids' whereabouts, and whether they adopt some code of ethics, or instead, they track whenever they feel like it.
Your input welcome!