The 4 Stages Of Tracking My Teen's Cell Phone

by Melissa Tamberg-Heffron
Originally Published: 

Image via Shutterstock

Just call me Stalker Mom.

I admit it: I tracked my teen’s cell phone, and I make no apologies about it.

Of course, he is a good kid. Naturally, I wanted to trust him. But I faced a critical junction as my firstborn began to navigate some of life’s monumental transitions like venturing from junior high to high school. Even more terrifying, he was progressing from captive passenger to (yikes!) sliding behind the wheel. I realized that I could either deplete his college fund by hiring a private investigator to shadow his every move, or I could rely on a much simpler and cost-effective spying method: phone stalking.

As much as I wanted to grant him unlimited free reign, we are talking about teenagers, a breed just as committed as toddlers when it to comes to pushing our parental boundaries and buttons (the only difference is that now they’re usually taller than we are). Left unsupervised, teens face a plethora of potential perils with consequences far more damaging than any bump, bruise or scraped knee. I knew mine needed limits just as much as he did as a tot, if not more so.

For me, the desired periphery was achieved via GPS tracking. I’m guessing that when father of four Steve Jobs first conceptualized Apple’s Find My iPhone, he wasn’t thinking about locating his own device despite inserting the word “my” into the app’s name.

So at some point during my son’s middle school years, I channeled my inner Nancy Drew and inconspicuously installed technological tracking on his cell. I then embarked on scrutinizing his whereabouts in four progressive stages:

Stage 1: Safety

This might also be appropriately deemed the “Just Making Sure the Life Flight Helicopter Can Locate You” phase. Initially, my monitoring was highly focused on danger prevention. If my son headed off on a hike with friends, I wanted to know that he could be found immediately in case of an emergency—a king cobra bite, an alligator attack or getting lost in the woods, among other scenarios. (And no, it really isn’t relevant that Southern California has no king cobras, or alligators, or even wooded areas.) Being able to pinpoint his location gave me the confidence I needed to let him explore new frontiers.

Stage 2: Verification

Ironically, while I originally imagined this stage would be the most critical for me, providing confirmation that my kid was legitimately where he claimed he’d be, I ultimately relied on phone surveillance very minimally for this objective. In fact, four years of tracking yielded just one minor bust.

The summer before my son’s sophomore year, a few senior girls—think Regina George and The Plastics in Mean Girls—took a fancy to his younger troupe of friends, none of whom were yet old enough to have their driver’s licenses. Although I allowed my son to hang out with the collective group at the beach and other preapproved venues, he was forbidden from riding with any teenage driver. However, one afternoon when I hadn’t heard from him in quite awhile, my mother’s intuition clicked and, subsequently, so did I on my tracking app. My heart sank as the tiny honing icon revealed a location nowhere near the beach where I had dropped him off. Instead, he was at a park at least five miles away, clearly beyond walking distance.

“Where r u?” I immediately texted him.

“Beach” came his prompt reply.


Twenty minutes later, my son was seated next to me in the car, head hung low as I delivered a lengthy dissertation on trust, lying and the specifications of his subsequent grounding. I maintained the secrets of my sleuthing by telling him that an unnamed friend of mine had driven by and seen him at the park. While, thankfully, he wasn’t engaged in any inappropriate activities, he had broken the rules by getting a ride, which I never would have known were it not for my monitoring. Despite the fact that he didn’t learn until nearly two years later that his phone was bugged, he never again breached the family bylaws.

While I’ve known parents who use GPS to flag possible behavioral issues in their teens, the act of tracking my son actually empowered me to extend more freedom to him over the years, as it corroborated that he was being careful, law abiding and respectful of the rules.

Stage 3: Convenience

As I moved into the third stage of tracking, I took my satellite stalking to a transparent level. After I dialed my kid in to the fact that the Find My iPhone app on his cell was actually linked to my account and not his, I relied on the tracking tool for expediency and ease of decision-making.

While most parents embrace the Golden Rule for teens getting behind the wheel—never, ever text and drive—I took the precaution one step further by requiring my son to lock his phone in the glove box anytime the car was in motion. But this communication blackout often left me in the dark when trying to plan daily essentials such as dinnertime. It was pointless to set the table if my son’s coach had unexpectedly implemented a marathon after-school practice. By quickly logging in to my phone, I could immediately ascertain whether my son was still at the baseball field 20 minutes away or just around the corner using the Find My iPhone app—the difference between soggy spaghetti and pasta perfecta.

Stage 4: Reassurance

I readily acknowledge that I have always been a bit of a worrywart, and GPS has proven to be much cheaper than therapy. Sometimes I’d forget to ask my son to text me when he had arrived safely at his destination, and in other instances, he was frequently moving between multiple spots. Instead of constantly checking in with him by calling, I could independently track his phone and establish that he’d made it to his desired location in one piece (insert deep sigh of relief).

Even more, it became increasingly common for my bedtime to beckon long before my son’s 11:30 p.m. curfew, yet I would invariably awaken around midnight and wonder if he had made it home safely. Rather than drag my weary body out of bed and stumble down the hall in the dark, GPS enabled me to remain in the comfort of my own bed. With a quick punching of my pass code, I could see that my child’s device was pinging just as it should be, at home sweet home.

When my son graduated from high school and upgraded his cell phone, I briefly considered asking him if he’d mind installing tracking software on his new device so I could “see” him when he was 1,700 miles away at college. Admittedly, I was desperate for some semblance of sanity as my baby prepared to leave the nest, and I figured the ability to monitor his moves might take the edge off.

Relax, everyone! I said I really considered asking. But of course I never did.

After all, his younger brother had just gotten his first iPhone, and I still had him to stalk.

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