The majority of parents and their 13- to 17-year-olds have not discussed using a contact tracing app during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent survey led in part by a Washington State University researcher.

Robert Crossler, Philip L. Kays Distinguished Associate Professor at the Carson College of Business, and researchers at Virginia Tech surveyed 380 sets of parents and their teenagers in October. They found that parents were slightly more familiar with contact tracing apps than their teenage children, but over half of the families had never talked about using one. Additionally, more than half of the survey participants considered COVID-19 a major or moderate threat to their families.

The goal of the survey is to shed new light on family attitudes toward online privacy – including generational differences between parents and teenagers. It is part of a $200,000 National Science Foundation research project involving Crossler and collaborators from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University that could ultimately help increase the use of contact tracing apps and slow the spread COVID-19. Follow-up questions will be sent to survey participants in January.

“We’re trying to uncover where the tensions are and what we can learn to remove the barriers to widespread use of contact tracing,” said Crossler, who is also chair of the Department of Management, Information Systems, and Entrepreneurship at the Carson College of Business. “Interactions between parents and teens could provide some of the answers.”

The state of Washington released its contact tracing app last week. Washington Exposure Notifications alerts users if they’ve been in close physical proximity to someone who also has the app and tests positive for the coronavirus. But similar apps in other states have yet to gain widespread adoption due to privacy concerns that have kept people from downloading the apps or activating the contact tracing systems added to their iPhones and Androids during recent updates, Crossler said.

Weighing privacy tradeoffs

Closeup of Robert Crossler
Robert Crossler

Contact tracing apps work anonymously. Users don’t get any identifying information about the person they were near who tested positive. The system can be more effective than live contract tracing, because people who test positive often are evasive about who they’ve been with, Crossler said.

“They don’t want to out the fraternity brothers or sorority sisters they were partying with, or admit they had 30 people at their house for Thanksgiving,” he said.

In a family scenario, teens may be willing to use the app if it means they can attend school or go to soccer practice, Crossler said. But parents could have concerns about a system that – even with privacy safeguards – tracks location and who their children are with.

“As a parent, I might think that’s a huge invasion of my child’s privacy,” he said.

However, teenagers’ acceptance of the technology also could influence their parents, Crossler said.

In the survey, parents said helping their teens adjust to life during the pandemic is one of their biggest challenges. If the use of contact tracing apps helps families regain a sense of normalcy, they might encourage friends and extended family members to try it, he said.

Finding middle ground

Contact tracing is most effective when 80% of smartphone users download an app and keep it on constantly, according to an Oxford University study. Adoption at that rate flattens the curve of contagion, with each sick individual spreading the coronavirus to an average of just one other person, Crossler said.

But with a wary public, he’s also interested in a recent idea from entertainment industry officials. They’ve suggested giving spectators clip-on devices at concerts and sporting events. The devices would act like contact tracing apps, but only track people’s movements during the event.

He’s eager to get reactions to the concept during the follow-up survey planned for January.

“People might say, ‘I really want to go to a Cougar football game. I don’t want my movements traced 100% of the time, but I’m willing to do it for four hours to see the Cougs play,’” Crossler said.

“I think those are the types of decisions people will be making until we get a widespread vaccine rollout,” he added. “I could see people giving up their privacy for short periods of time.”

Media contacts:

  • Robert Crossler, Philip L. Kays Distinguished Associate Professor and chair of the Department of Management, Information Systems, and Entrepreneurship, Carson College of Business, 509-335-5722, rob.crossler@wsu.edu
  • Becky Kramer, communications manager, Carson College of Business, 208-661-0197 (cell), becky.kramer@wsu.edu