Are you on Life360? It’s a US app that’s gaining rapid popularity here in Australia, helping over 25 million parents keep tabs on their kids, all from their smartphone.
Touted as letting ‘parents just be parents,’ Life360 offers location, driving and digital safety. It alerts you if your child has left their school, lets you track their journey and even shows if they’ve braked too hard while driving. Our haven editor Belinda loves it.
“I feel a level of security knowing I can log in and check their location at any time – not that I do it that much, honestly, it’s more so peace of mind when I do need it,” says Belinda. “But, interestingly and unexpectedly, it’s working beneficially the other way too. When I was late to collect my daughter from her job last week, she could see I was at home and she knew I was working so understood I must have had some pressing phone call that made me late.
“They can see when I’m approaching our school pick up spot so they know they need to stop talking to their friends and hurry up and get there. I can see where my husband is on his drive back from picking up my daughter from dancing lessons to know when to start serving up dinner – it’s hot on the table as they walk through the door #wifegoalz #mumgoalz.”
Of course, these apps offer unparalleled convenience – no more, “Where are you?” phone calls, “Where am I picking you up?” texts or sleepless nights wondering whether your 16-year-old is actually where she says she is.
But why do some parents feel icky about installing them? And are there any risks those who do use them should know about? To find out, we spoke to Jaya Baloo, chief information security officer of global leader in digital security and privacy products, Avast.
“Creating a safe environment for your child starts with trust, and while parental controls can be helpful, stalkerware is not the answer,” says Jaya, who clarifies that unlike Life360, ‘stalkerware’ apps are typically installed without consent. “Children have a fundamental right to privacy and independence as well, and staying informed about your child’s online activities is important and requires consent. Transparency and open conversations are key.”
Following a study of the top nine most used stalkerware apps – which haven’t been named in the analysis, so as not to encourage further use – Avast found the advertising messaging around these apps particularly concerning. While some were targeted at jealous partners and unethical employers, all apps targeted parents to secretly monitor their child’s online behaviour.
“Unfortunately, these apps are preying on parents’ fears of protecting their children,” says Jaya. “They position themselves as serving a greater good, and promise to help keep kids safe from online dangers by monitoring messages and calls, accessing photos and videos, location tracking and more.”
Perhaps the key difference between the stalkerware apps identified in Avast’s study and apps like Life360 is the need for consent. Life360 is an opt-in app that requires all users to accept an invitation in order to function, meaning parents cannot use it to secretly monitor their children.
But, still, the issues identified by Avast study are worth noting for parents keen to use a tracking app to follow their family. The following messaging was used by stalkerware apps to rationalise their use, and can serve as red flags for parents when finding the right app for them:
- Fear-mongering: Many of these apps try scare tactics, focusing on online and offline threats and what could happen to kids, such as cyberbullying, access to inappropriate content, and predators. They employ statistics to highlight the different real or emotional threats children can face and use examples like bad guys lurking in deserted parks.
- Appeal to emotion: Most of these apps try to relate to the potential customer by reinforcing the feelings of anxiety and concern they might already have.
- The promise of benefits: These apps try to rationalise their use by saying they can help “keep your children on the right track”.
- A sense of majority: The websites use phrases that imply that other people are using their apps with great results, stating between 100,000 customers to 3 million users. One of the apps inconsistently reports 100,000 and 2 million users on the same page, which makes the information even less credible and should be a red flag for users of any app.
- Fake user reviews: Four out of the nine stalkerware apps analysed feature user reviews which are likely to be fake. For example, on some websites, the same reviews, word by word, are attributed to different people, and in one case the exact same reviews were used across two “competing” platforms. In another case, the same review included in the stalkerware app is reused in a different non-related app, bringing the authenticity of these reviews into question.
In a perfect world, there would be no need for these kinds of apps – children could live in safety by simply following their parents’ advice. And while, unfortunately, our words of wisdom can’t guarantee protection, apps like Life360 can’t do all the work for you. A balanced approach is surely best.
Following their study, Avast came up with the following tips for parents to help safeguard their children:
- Be informed about social media platforms trending among children and teenagers, and their privacy conditions. You need to be a step ahead to be able to help your child stay safe.
- Lead by example. If your children see that you are sharing pictures of them without their permission, then why would they hold back sharing pictures of themselves and others? If you want to share pictures of your children, it is advised to use pictures where they can be seen from behind or with the face blurred. Additionally, you should always ask your child for consent before publishing a photo of them.
- Explain what personal information is, educate your child about how sensitive data can be and how long such data may exist online, and set expectations around sharing. Work out what you think is okay and not okay for your child to share online, then have a conversation with them about it. If your children are older, you should also talk about sexting and private images. Talk about how they can be used against them, both by the person who receives them and others.
- Talk about the risks of online strangers. Discuss the different ways a stranger may reach out and work out a plan for what your kid can do when and if that happens.
- Teach your child to set strong passwords. A strong password, or passphrase should be long and complex, consisting of special characters, numbers, and lower and upper case letters.
- Explain phishing and best practices to protect themselves. Children should not click on links they receive via email or social media from unknown sources. If asked to enter personal data on a website, they should enter the URL manually into the browser instead of clicking on a link.
- Install anti-virus software on your child’s devices. Children are as likely (if not more likely) to click on suspicious links as adults are, so it is best to ensure their devices are protected if they do.
- Set YouTube and gaming systems to a “Restricted Mode”, which filters out content inappropriate for children.
- Together with your child, go through privacy settings on social media and check app permissions. Explain why restricting the access of apps to their data is important.
- Have an open ear for your children. Let them know they can always come to you with anything online related and won’t get in trouble – even if they broke the rules.
- Unlike stalkerware, which is used without consent from the victim, parental control apps can be beneficial to keep your family safe when used the right way. Legitimate parental control tools are clearly visible to the child on their device and it is recommended that parents discuss the usage with their children prior to activating. Having family conversations around keeping the child safe from inappropriate content, limiting screen time to maintain well-being, and ensuring your child is safe when they are online are extremely important to ensure children understand and consent.
“One thing that has really surprised me about Life360 is the fact that my daughter and her friends all have the app – they always know where each other are in their own private ‘family’ group,” says Belinda. “I only have the free version but will def upgrade when my oldest gets her licence for all those additional features like driving notes.”