Thanks to technology, the difference between our lives and our maps is increasingly eroding – we not only know where we are, but the map (and the world) knows where we are, too.
Facebook and more specialized services like the popular Foursquare app provide a stream of information about what your friends are doing and where they are, but also give you the chance – or the obligation – to "check in" at a physical location and thereby broadcast where you are and what you're doing. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that "39% [of adult smartphone users] say they check into places on Facebook, 18% say they use Foursquare, and 14% say they use Google Plus, among other services."
Naturally some parents are less than thrilled with the new rise of "hey, world, track me down at this specific location" apps, but the reality for teens is more complicated than that, and such services actually offer young people a number of advantages that their parents and grandparents might have enjoyed as teens. But first, a few of the potential downsides to smartphone-based location-based services:
-- Stranger Danger
"Stranger danger" is listed here as a courtesy to public expectations, nothing more; the actual incidence rate of stranger abduction and assault is quite low, and the very nature of social media means that it's challenging to trace the movements of someone you don't actually know – you need to be virtual friends (or at least friends of friends) before you can begin following a trail of breadcrumbs toward your target.
More realistic than your teen being hunted down by some random predator is your teen being teased, hazed, or even physically bullied by a person or persons with a specific grudge against him or her. Inasmuch as social media and location-based services make it easier for us to learn more about our friends, it also gives bullies more ammunition to use against their targets, just part of the much bigger trend of bullying (particularly emotional bullying) intensifying in the digital age.
Related to bullies (but more specifically relevant to kids in their late teens) are stalkers – romantically obsessed former flames (or would-be flames) who latch to the objects of their obsessions and refuse to let go. For these folks, check ins can serve as a how-to guide to create chance encounters, keep up with potential romantic "rivals," and generally make their targets' lives miserable.
-- Mind-Numbing Conformity
Certain places don't make for rock-star level check ins: Grandma's assisted living facility, the coin and stamp store, the hobby shop, and so forth. And others may be almost required to show that you're with it: particular parties for example.
Teenage life (like life in general, come to think of it) is a precarious balancing act between being who you want to be and who you think everyone else thinks you should be, and check-in services just add one more layer of information and monitoring to the sometimes nasty little fishbowl that is middle school and high school life.
For the places that leave you less cool just for having associated with them, the obvious answer to this is simply not to check in. And as for running with the pack to the places that be ... well, it's something teens will have to grapple with regardless of their access to location-based services.
-- Create a Living Diary
The old-fashioned idea of keeping a diary may be waning in popularity (at least inasmuch a diary needs to be written with pen on paper), but having a document that we can reflect upon to see our growth and evolution will never cease to be interesting. And that's where something like Foursquare or Facebook actually becomes a new way to solve an old problem – the logs of where we've been (and who with) may have changed in form, but they're still accessible. And more and more services are springing up to convert the digital and ephemeral into something more tangible (like this neat app that turns your iPhone photos into photo albums).
-- Discover New Places
The world is a big, complicated place, particularly for kids growing up in urban areas where the number of cafes, parks, restaurants, and other hotspots is essentially without limit. Check-in services can be a way to travel vicariously and get a sense of what else is out there – and inspire travel and exploration.
-- Bond with Friends
The flip-side of bullying is friendship - the joys of having a group of close friends to share life with as a counterpoint to all the chaos and stress of growing up. Check ins tell you what your friends are up to and where they are, and that's one of the real upsides – and truly "social" aspects – of social media.
-- Spend Money More Wisely
A service like Foursquare is more than just a way to trumpet to the world where you happen to be at a give moment – it's also an opportunity to share tips or lists of tips about specific cool things to do at that place, whether it's a restaurant, a park, or a shopping mall. By allowing their users to tap into collective knowledge, check-in based services can actually enhance their users' experiences of wherever it is they happen to be going. And certain location-based applications can offer discounts or other ways to maximize fun while holding down costs ... a real plus for a teenager on a limited budget, which is to say a goodly percentage of teenagers everywhere.