Gen Z’s latest tech craze is tracking each other’s exact whereabouts

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Alice Barlow’s been tracked for years, and she doesn’t mind.

Back when she was dating, 22-year-old Barlow’s friends would use a location-sharing app that tracked her—with her permission—to make sure she had got home safely at the end of the evening.

During the same period, before Barlow met her husband, he suffered a severe car crash. But his friends didn’t find out about the crash via the usual channels—a call from the police, for example, or from Barlow’s now-husband himself. Instead, they also learned through the same location-sharing app, something called Life360, which “automatically contacted his friends because it detected the accident.”

Being constantly tracked by your cell phone was once a cause for concern, with older generations keen to “digitally disconnect” whenever they could—but for Gen Z, monitoring exactly where their friends are at any given moment has become something of an addiction—and a business opportunity. 

Apps like Apple’s Find My Friends and Life360’s namesake location-sharing app, mapping tools that allows users to track their contacts’ locations in real-time, have become especially popular among Gen Z users—those aged between 11 and 26

Find My Friends comes pre-installed on Apple devices using its newest operating systems, and is free to download for iOS users, while social media platform Snap added a live location-sharing feature last year

Meanwhile, San Francisco-based Life360’s app has also seen a boom in popularity in recent years—and the company says a large part of that growth is down to Gen Z.

According to data released by the company on Thursday, Life360 now has more than 54 million monthly active users across the globe—29% more than it had a year ago—and is used by around one in nine American families. Since 2021, downloads of the app have doubled in the U.S. and tripled internationally.

‘Acute need for safety’

After years of widespread concerns about digital privacy, why is a new generation of internet users so willing to broadcast their precise whereabouts? 

“The reason I downloaded it was safety,” says 24-year-old tech worker Imaan Khan. “Especially with my sister and my friends. When we were at [college], we would go home separately or with different groups of people, and it was an accurate way of keeping track of where people were.”

Suha Faisal, a 23-year-old charity worker based in London, says she uses Find My Friends a few times a week.

“I only have three people on it—two of my closest female friends and my dad—mainly for safety reasons,” she says. “I use it when I know I’m going somewhere and it’s a new situation, whether that’s a first date or I’m going out and I’m going to be alone. And because I use it for that, if my friends are in the same situation I’ll probably watch it in the evening when I know they’re out, without them even asking me to.”

For Alice Barlow, safety is also at the core of location-sharing apps’ appeal. However, she notes that the Life360 app still has some bugs to figure out.

“Once it reported that my brother drove 102mph in a residential neighborhood, and it showed the ‘peak speed’ was in the middle of a lake,” she says. “My brother did not drive 102mph, nor was his path through a lake, but my parents still freaked out anyway.”

Like ‘a birthday party’

It isn’t only safety that’s fueling the trend, however.

According to Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and author of Thrivers, location-tracking apps are helping young people establish a sense of belonging and connection. 

“Togetherness is absolutely essential for this generation, particularly following years of social distancing from the very people who give them that sense of belonging: their friends,” she tells Fortune. “So it’s that much more important to them that they keep those relationships intact, and location sharing helps them do that.”

Dhruv Saxena, 25, a data engineer who lives in Seattle, says that for him, using Find My Friends started off as a safety feature but “exploded into a cool thing to do.”

“I’m a data person, so I like bookkeeping things on a map…it gives you the illusion that you have friends all over a map.”

He likens using Find My Friends to inviting friends to a birthday party or on a trip.

“That would be the closest analogy: not everyone’s invited, you only bring certain people,” he explains. 

Another Find My Friends fan, a 26-year-old who works in London’s financial district, said she uses the app almost daily for her own entertainment.

“I use it to see what my friends are up to, to be nosey and check if they’re up to no good,” she admitted. “I usually send them a screenshot if they’re somewhere suspicious, like at their ex’s house, to let them know they’ve been caught out.” 

TikTok trend

Life360 CEO Chris Hulls says going viral on social media has also given the company a helping hand, with services like Life360 and Apple’s Find My Friends becoming the stars of a slew of TikTok content.

Users of the social media platform have viewed videos tagged with #findmyfriends 38.6 million times.

@damnniyahh love it when they make things easy for me😮‍💨🤣bc wya?!! #findmyfriends #sharelocation ♬ original sound – jay 👩🏽‍🦲

“Do you ever just check on your friend’s location because it’s weirdly satisfying?” one TikToker wrote alongside a video clip of the Find My Friends app in use.

@fallanlanham thats one of my fav apps 🫣🫣 #fyp #europe #findmyfriends ♬ What It Is – Solo Version – Doechii

“It’s a form of social media for me,” another user captioned a video posted to the site. “[Got to] see what everyone is up to.”

But Hulls adds that there’s more driving the success of these apps than TikTok videos. 

“Gen Z has grown up in an era where technology and connectivity are the norm. Sharing their location is a natural evolution for a digitally native generation, especially as this generation matures—they’re learning to drive, heading off to college, and overall gaining more independence,” he tells Fortune. “Life360 gives teens greater opportunities to gain independence to explore the world, while parents gain more visibility and peace of mind without needing more control.”

According to Anthony LaFauce, managing director at Washington, D.C.-based PR agency Clyde Group, location-sharing apps are really taking off because they “scratch three itches for Gen Z.”

These are never wanting to feel alone, increasing their sense of security, and speeding up communication, LaFauce says.

“Gen Z grew up with much more supervision than previous generations. I spend a ton of time on [Reddit] and can tell you the fear of being alone is something that weighs heavily on this generation,” he tells Fortune. “This is also a generation that thinks phone calls are slow, texting is fine, and simply knowing where your friends are—a bar, basketball game, or another friend’s place—is the fastest.”

Businesses can benefit, too

Josh Amishav, founder and CEO of cybersecurity firm Breachsense, told Fortune the popularity of location-sharing apps offered businesses opportunities to create unique and targeted promotions.

“Geo-targeting capabilities allow businesses to send custom promotions to users who are nearby, creating immediate incentives for visits,” he explained. “For example, a restaurant could send a lunchtime coupon to app users within a certain radius, capitalizing on convenience and proximity.”

Event venues, like concert halls or sports stadiums, could also benefit by offering group coordination through the app, Amishav said. They could also add promotions for on-site food, merchandise, or tickets for future events.

Amishav added that the apps, which are often family-centric, could benefit family-oriented businesses by helping them develop their marketing strategies.

“Whether it’s child-care services, family dining establishments, or educational programs, the concentrated user base could be a ripe market for targeted, relevant business promotions,” Amishav said.

British entrepreneur and author Byron Cole also told Fortune that leveraging the popularity of location-sharing apps could be a strategic move for promoting businesses and expanding professional networks.

“These apps offer a unique opportunity to connect with a geographically targeted audience, enabling businesses to engage with potential customers in real-time,” he advised. “Imagine hosting a special event or exclusive promotion tied to a specific location. It’s a creative way to draw in foot traffic and foster community engagement.”

He added: “For those who value networking, these apps can facilitate spontaneous meet-ups and interactions with professional contacts, creating invaluable face-to-face connections. Networking in business is essential, and your network really is your net worth.”

‘Invasive’ apps may put users at risk

LaFauce—who teaches a communications class at the American University—also notes, however, that many people who use location apps appear not to have thought the data implications through. 

“When people talk about privacy violations, if it’s done by a corporation or the government, it’s bad—but [waiving] privacy among friends is not really considered the same,” he says. “I know some folks who will not use Amazon’s [virtual assistant] Alexa because they think it’s listening. But then at the same time, people are just automatically putting out tracking data—location data still goes to a server somewhere that’s controlled by a very large company, it’s not point-to-point.”

According to Life360’s report, Gen Z users think the security gains that come from location apps outweigh any potential data misuse issues. One in three of the Gen Zers surveyed in the report said the increased physical safety and convenience was worth giving up some of their privacy.

Lauren Hendry Parsons, privacy advocate at ExpressVPN, warns, though, that while “invasive” location data collection can easily be accessed by hackers, there are other real-world implications young people need to consider when broadcasting their whereabouts. 

“Even if you judge this to be a low likelihood risk for your situation and ‘being hacked’ might feel like sci-fi or high drama and unlikely to happen in your life, there are risks that you need to consider much closer to home,” she says. “People need to consider what happens if they’re no longer friends with someone or have broken up with someone who they’ve previously shared their location data with.”

According to a recent ExpressVPN survey, as many as one in four people regularly track their ex-partner’s real-time location using location-sharing apps like Find My Friends.

“This type of surveillance can lead to risks beyond cybersecurity and potentially be used as a tool of coercive control, especially if the breakup wasn’t on good terms,” Hendry Parsons cautions. “After a relationship ends it’s essential to promptly revoke access or change your password.”

For their part, many Find My Friends users have given the privacy implications at least a little thought.

“At college I had lots of people on the app, and afterward, especially during COVID, I realized that I didn’t want as many of those people that I wasn’t seeing so often to be able to see my location all the time,” Khan says. “If you’re going to your family’s house and everyone can see where your family lives… I did end up deleting a lot of people that I wasn’t very close to from Find My Friends for that reason. Now mine is always switched on, but that’s because I only have about five or six people on there. So I don’t really worry about [privacy] anymore.”

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