If you've ever used a cell phone to find an address -- or to find the nearest Starbucks -- you know how handy GPS (global positioning system) can be. But teens' GPS use can go way beyond locating the closest Frappuccino.
Programs called location services let teens publicly post their current location -- and it's not just their friends who can see where they are. By using these services, teens may be leaving behind a breadcrumb trail of their movements for strangers to view and providing a wealth of location data that companies buy and sell. Learn how you can help your teens balance the social aspects they want with the safety protections they need.
There are hundreds of downloadable location apps, as well as GPS services offered by cell phone carriers. The programs encompass a wide array of features and capabilities, from simple street directions to safety to social networking.
These are the four basic categories of location services, with their pros and cons:
People locators and trackers let you track your teens' whereabouts. These programs can alert you when your kid arrives at or leaves a destination. Some can be used without your teen's knowledge. Programs in this category include Verizon's Family Locator, Gone Out - Later Folks, and I'm OK.
Navigation programs provide routes and directions and display places of interest nearby. Programs in this category include Google Maps and Around Me.
Social mapping apps let teens "check in" at a specific place, see their friends' locations on a map, and get deals at places they visit. Programs in this category include Foursquare, Find My Friends, and Facebook Places.
Geocaching games work like a giant treasure hunt. Players use GPS to find or hide items and share their adventures online. A great game in this category is the app Geocaching. A subset of this category includes global discovery apps like Star Chart and World Atlas HD, which use GPS to help kids learn more about the world around them.
Now that GPS is available on nearly every phone, kids will be exposed to location services -- especially if their friends are using them. Strict privacy settings and ongoing discussions about what's OK to post and what's not OK are key. Here are a few more things to keep in mind.
Make sure that people you don't know can't find you. The first rule of location services is to not post personally identifying information. Don't post your address, your first and last name, your photo -- anything that can identify you in a specific time and place.
Use strict privacy settings. Nearly all location services offer strict privacy settings that share your location only with friends in your network. This prevents strangers from knowing where you are. Still, teens may have lots and lots of friends in their networks and may not know all of them personally. Review the privacy settings of each app they download -- as well as the fine print -- on any services your teens use.
Respect other people's privacy. Some programs, like Facebook's Places, allow friends to check other friends into a location. Let's say your teen attends a concert with Jane. Jane can post that she's at the show with your kid, which links to your kid's Facebook profile.
Focus on fun and learning. GPS-enabled navigation programs and geocaching games can help your kids learn about the world around them. Using these programs in a safe, fun setting shows teens how powerful GPS is and teaches them how to use it responsibly.
Turn GPS off when you're not using it. If you're not using it for safety reasons, why not turn it off? When it's on, location data can be automatically added to things you upload from your phone, including tweets, Facebook posts, photos, and videos. It can even add locations to a graphical map When it's off, the phone has to ask permission to use your location. That gives you more control over the information you post, as well as the information that's collected.
Limit your digital trail. Adding your location to online posts leaves a breadcrumb trail of your movements. Companies aren't completely transparent about what information they collect and how they use it. Ads on your cell phone are just one way you know that your information is being tracked. Every time you interact with a location service, you're pinging little bits and bytes of your personal data to companies so they can use it for marketing purposes. And currently, there's no way to know exactly how much information you're giving away.