I know where you are: what does it mean to have friends and partners geolocated 24 hours a day

Irene Bartolomé, a 26-year-old political scientist, always knows where her 28 best friends are.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
13 May 2024 Monday 05:36
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I know where you are: what does it mean to have friends and partners geolocated 24 hours a day

Irene Bartolomé, a 26-year-old political scientist, always knows where her 28 best friends are. She has all of them included in the Find My Friends app on her iPhone, which allows her to know their location at all times. “I give it infinite uses. Before, if I wanted to talk on the phone with someone, I would call them and that was it. Now I check where that person is, because if they are at work I know I can't call them. The more people you have, the more you use it. It seems to me like a somewhat romantic way to be in the daily lives of your friends, because it creates an illusion of routine. Maybe you see that your friend is already awake at six in the morning and you say to them, 'Good morning, beautiful.'”

As with many things in the social use of technology, when Apple decided to merge two of its most popular apps into one (the one used to locate your iPhone when it goes missing due to theft or loss and the Find My Friends app), it probably didn't anticipate that it would become a tool for control and sociability. Many couples, usually very young, have it activated at all times, so they can track each other's whereabouts 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In some families, it can be a source of discord, as the parents of teenagers want to activate it for their children to have more control over them, but the teenagers rebel against what they perceive as an overbearing gesture of surveillance. Many young women use it with their friends for safety reasons, warning them to be especially vigilant if they are meeting people through dating apps or going out at night. Lastly, there are also people like Bartolomé, who has the location of nearly thirty people on his phone and uses it almost like a social network.

That does not mean that it does not have its rules. “I would never give it to my parents, or to a partner, and I don't have the location of anyone who doesn't have mine. It has to be reciprocal, and it has to arise organically. It's not like asking for Instagram,” says Irene Bartolomé. It also serves her to make sure that her friends have arrived home safely after a night out, without having to send the classic message: “All good, home already,” or to give signs of life when she is driving.

Álex Maroño, a Spanish journalist based in New York, also has several friends in various countries constantly tracked on his phone. “My sister lives in A Coruña and I would say it's like having a little window into her life. Living far away, those details help me feel connected to her. With my friends in New York, it's a mix of security and curiosity: it allows me to know what they are doing, where they are. Some nights, before going to sleep, I check the app to make sure each one is at home.”

While this practice is becoming more common, it remains a minority one, as typically sharing locations is discussed within the scope of a couple. TikTok is full of videos featuring very young individuals debating whether sharing permanent location is a toxic gesture or a display of complete trust. There are even girls who jokingly boast about enabling location tracking on their boyfriends without their knowledge.

Mireia, who writes under the name @noemdiguismire on X, posted the following message a few days ago: “I am so shocked because many young couples have each other's location in real time 24 hours a day. So shocking. So much. How much work we have.” Her inspiration for writing this came precisely from a video by the influencer Natalia Palacios on TikTok (almost one million followers on TikTok, 428,000 on Instagram) in which she surprised her boyfriend with a tattoo she had done with his name, and one of the boyfriend's first reactions was to say: “Now I understand why you turned off your location for a while.” In other words, he had noticed the only moment when she virtually disappeared for a while.

Mireia's message caused quite a stir for a few days, with over 200 mentions and 190 responses covering a wide range of opinions. From people like Fernando López, a 41-year-old coach and psychologist who admitted to using tracking apps with his partner, to many users who shared horror at the lack of privacy. López explains that he and his partner use the Live 360 app, which also works in areas without coverage, because they both enjoy mountain activities, in case they get lost or trapped, and also occasionally check it during the day to see, for example, if it's time to put something in the oven because the other person is only 10 minutes away from home. “I'm not worried about being tracked, I've never been one to hide anything,” he says.

Another person who commented in the thread was Sergi, a 39-year-old teacher who prefers not to give his last name. In his case, he shared a permanent location with a former partner at her request, as she felt a lot of mistrust and insecurity. “We had many incompatibilities, but the one that generated the most tensions had to do with my female friends. My profession greatly facilitates having female friends because there are more women than men in the teaching profession. We had an exclusive and closed relationship, and she had had some negative experiences in the past. I offered to share my location at all times, until she asked me to remove it herself because it made her nervous. In the end, nothing worked to make her stop distrusting. I ended the relationship when I couldn't take the constant suspicion anymore, despite loving her very much.”

In the new lexicon of relationships, offering permanent location would be equivalent to making a copy of the house key or agreeing to have unprotected sex, a ritual that in that context is understood, for better or for worse, as a test of commitment.

Psychopedagogue Cristina Crespo is a counselor at IES Barcelona Congrès. Before immersing herself in the daily life with adolescents, she graduated with a final project focused on the use of technology in romantic relationships among 9th and 10th graders. “That was seven years ago, and back then, it was mainly done through WhatsApp. I observed dynamics of control and some alarming data,” she recalls.

In the high school where she works, she has noticed that sharing Instagram passwords is very normalized, also as a proof of trust, especially among friends. Adolescents often don't see it so much as a tool of control – although it can sometimes become that and lead to questions like: What were you doing there? or Why were you in the same place as this other person? – but as something positive.

“According to the educational psychologist, 'Their speech is: because we are best friends, or a couple, I add you to this premium list, I offer you this.' Crespo is concerned about the identification of love with possession that some of these attitudes reveal, which are common among adolescents. 'I see behaviors of trying to control the friendships of the other person, and I try to reason with them when they do not understand, for example, that their new partner can still be friends with someone with whom they had something in the past. This is related to self-esteem and trust and can be very destructive. Jealousy is a very present emotion that we try to dismantle through conversations and support.'”

Your observations at the institute agree with the conclusions of several reports provided by INJUVE, the Youth Institute, such as the one entitled “Emotional dependency, romantic jealousy, and cyberviolence,” carried out in 2022 by researchers Lucía Granda and María de la Villa Moral. The report concluded that the mechanisms of control and violence enabled by the digital environment create a toxic relationship with “romantic myths and the maladaptive and idealized view of a romantic relationship.” This leads to tolerating inappropriate behavior, worsened by the downplaying of jealousy and control-related behaviors. For example, perceiving that your partner has turned off their location for a few minutes and asking, “Where were you?”