Some parents use AirTags to keep tabs on their kids. Should they?

 A back view of a long-haired schoolgirl in jeans and a short-sleeve top walking while wearing a yellow backpack.

Some parents are slipping AirTags into their kids' backpacks because of safety concerns. Should they? (Getty Images)

Parents are finding increasingly creative ways to AirTag their children — key chains, bracelets, silicone safety pins and even hidden in a hair bun. And some sew Apple’s coin-size location tracker into their child’s shoes, pocket or backpack. But should they?

To answer this question, parents first need to understand that AirTags were intended to help people track inanimate objects —keys, wallet, luggage — not people. Unlike other child-tracking devices such as Jiobit’s Smart Tag or a Gizmo Watch, AirTags do not have GPS. Instead, an AirTag uses Bluetooth to ping off nearby devices. This means an AirTag only updates its location when surrounded by other devices, which means that on an unpopulated road, in the woods or even at the neighborhood park, it could become completely useless if no one in the area is using an Apple device with Bluetooth enabled. AirTags are also only compatible with Apple devices, and users must view the FindMy app to track the tag’s location.

However, despite these limitations, many parents are turning to AirTags for location tracking because of the small size and low price. Unlike GPS tags and smartwatches, which typically cost well over $100 and sometimes even require a monthly cellular plan, AirTags are only $29 (or $99 for a four-pack).

Kerry Zwierzko first slipped an AirTag into the front pocket of her son’s backpack last year when he started kindergarten. Over a year later, it’s still there and working well enough for her purposes. She mainly uses it to see if his bus has left school, but it’s not accurate enough to track which street he is on in real time. It’s also useful when her son is going over to a friend’s house after school because she can check to make sure he made it safely. “AirTag is good as a general 'I’m confident that my kid is still at school' [device], but if [parents] want to track [their kids] biking and walking and have a better handle on [exactly] where their kid is, AirTag would not be the way to go,” Zwierzko tells Yahoo Life.

It's also important to recognize that the usability of the device is also dependent upon kids keeping it on themselves or in their bag. Lama Mulki first tried AirTags with her two kids, who are 14 and 6, when they were traveling in Europe this summer because she was afraid they might get separated. Like Zwierzko, she found that it worked well enough, but her kids eventually refused to put their AirTags on because it was a hassle after swimming or changing clothes. “I think it works well if you can find a practical way to tag the kids with it. If you put it in their bags, they may not be with their bag. If you put it on them, they might not like keeping it on. If you tag it to their clothes, they may take off their clothes,” Mulki tells Yahoo Life.

Parents should also be aware that AirTags are a form of digital surveillance. For this reason, Leah Plunkett, author of Sharenthood and a lecturer at Harvard Law School, wants parents to treat the decision to AirTag their kids as a significant one driven by a family’s values, and she acknowledges that the values at play are complicated because they include privacy and trust.

In regards to privacy, parents should be aware that the data children are sharing and parents are receiving is subject to “terms and conditions undergirded by applicable laws and regulations." This “digital data trail has privacy implications for your whole family,” Plunkett tells Yahoo Life.

Additionally, she cautions parents that “AirTags are not a substitute for children developing self-trust and what we would have called in my day 'street smarts.'” Parents need to teach their kids to be aware and take care of themselves in different situations, such as walking to school. Kids should not become dependent on the false idea that because they are wearing a device they don’t need to pay close attention to where they are going or who is around them because they think an adult will be able to find or get help to them if something goes awry.

Plunkett also worries about the larger implications for kids’ digital citizenship. “I think there is a risk if we as parents engage in surveillance of our kids that we are directly or indirectly sending them the signal that they should expect and tolerate and perhaps even welcome digital surveillance by other actors throughout their life,” Plunkett tells Yahoo Life.

Susan Linn, psychologist and author of Who’s Raising the Kids? Big Tech, Big Business, and the Lives of Children, has similar concerns about children becoming used to surveillance and believes parents should not use AirTags. “I think parents need to understand that they and their children are being exploited by big tech and big business, and they are being exploited by being sold on products that are actually unnecessary, and it creates a culture of fear," Linn says. For example, most parents are afraid of a stranger kidnapping their child, but that is an extremely rare event.

It also gets in the way of children developing a sense of independence if their parents are always tracking them. “Part of growing up is increased responsibility and increased independence, and that’s being undermined," Linn tells Yahoo Life. "And it also can promote fear in children, or at least mistrust of the world if their parents are so worried about them whenever they are away from the family that they have to be tracked. That undermines a child’s sense of self and undermines a child’s trust in the world."

But some families may find an AirTag to be a less intrusive form of tech because, unlike a smartwatch or smartphone, it is a one-way form of digital communication. “For a parent who is looking to limit the amount of digital activity their child can engage in but still get one key piece of digital information, mainly where their child is, then [an] AirTag does make a lot of sense as an option — with the caveat that there continue to be other considerations and trade-offs separate from the question of how much digital activity to let your child initiate,” Plunkett says.

At the end of the day, AirTags, like screen time limits, social media usage and participation in online gaming platforms like Roblox, are just one more decision that parents will have to make surrounding tech for their kids. Plunkett hopes parents take their time making it. “I’m a big believer that parents should look very closely and frequently and holistically at the range of digital tools — devices and services alike — that they would consider for their family at any point in time.”

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