Sooner or later, most parents lose a kid—usually for only a few minutes. A toddler figures out how to open an unlatched door. A kindergartener heads off to investigate something in another grocery aisle. A school-age child gets confused about the pick up location. Even if it’s brief, the experience is heart-stopping. And it has given rise to a whole new industry—GPS tracking for kids.
Some parents turn to GPS because the world seems scarier than it was when they were kids. Others want an electronic yenta who can keep an eye on children (and their caregivers) at all times. Still others want a better way to supervise and enforce family rules about safety. For those who really can’t take care of themselves—very young children, kids with disabilities, even pets or elders with dementia—tracking devices may produce peace of mind.
For children, GPS tracking can be a problem. Experts point out that tracking devices can encourage both passivity and a false sense of security in children as well as parents. As parents find themselves counting on surveillance, they may be less intentional about helping kids anticipate and avoid risks. Instead of learning what they need to know to navigate confidently and safely in a risky world, kids depend on the panic button that summons Mom.
That said, there are situations in which a tracker can be very useful, such as amusement parks or kids who walk to and from school. Before purchasing the technology, consider the following questions.
What does it do?
Some trackers, like Trax, do nothing but show location. They can be attached to children, elders, pets, or even a laptop that tends to wander off. Many units resemble watches or function like flip phones. And some, like the Amby Gear Smartwatch, include games or virtual pets. For little kids, the extra bells and whistles may be distracting. For older children, they may make the device more appealing.
What’s the technology?
Tracking units that use GPS depend on satellites and some provide coverage pretty much anywhere on the planet. Other devices use the cell phone network so they won’t work if the child wanders out of range. Still, other devices like My Buddy Tag use Bluetooth technology. Their reach is limited, though that may be just fine if you’re trying to keep tabs on a child in the backyard or your local park. The most accurate devices like the Wherecom Kidfit use a combination of technologies.
What does it monitor?
At the very least, a tracking device should pinpoint a child’s location. Some send a signal at intervals; others allow continuous tracking, though that may drain the battery. Many units make it possible to set up safety zones or geofences and send an alert if the child goes beyond those boundaries.
Is it complicated?
For very young children, simplicity is a virtue. Tinitell, for example, is a band with a button. If a child pushes the button, the device calls preprogrammed numbers until someone picks up. Check the app as well as the device. If it has lots of features, be sure customer support is readily available.
How long is the battery life?
Even the best tracker won’t work if the battery is dead. Find out how long the battery lasts, how it has to be charged, and whether there’s a low battery alert. Lineable, for example, is a simple, inexpensive wristband tracker with a battery that lasts an entire year.
Is the device secure?
If you have to sign in to get information about your child’s location, it’s possible for other people to sign in too. What precautions has the company taken to prevent hacking? What kind of alerts will you get if there is a security breach
What kind of communication is possible?
Some units have a big panic button a child can press. Some allow one-way communication. More expensive devices like the GizmoGadget, available from Verizon, provide two-way communication similar to a cell phone.
Is it kid-proof?
Some kids can handle delicate equipment and some can’t. Choose a GPS unit accordingly. PocketFinder, for example, is built out of plastic that’s almost indestructible. The Korex Babysitter claims to be waterproof. Be sure the clasp on any band is secure and easy to use.
Will your child wear it?
Trackers like HereO feature bright colors that may appeal to a preschooler and are decidedly uncool in elementary school. Check bands to be sure they are flexible and won’t chafe. And think about how big the device is in relation to your child. Multi-feature devices may be too bulky for little wrists.
How much does it cost?
Tracking devices range from $40 to $200. Many devices also require a monthly service contract that can cost from $4 to $40 per month. Before signing with a new service, check your existing cell phone provider to see if they offer a better deal on a device.
Are there special features for special kids?
AngelSense is designed to provide extra layers of protection for children with special needs that make them more vulnerable. Doki lets parents schedule reminders or deactivate the distracting features of the watch when the kid is supposed to be concentrating on other things.
Of course, by the time a child is old enough for a cell phone, the tracking question is moot. Cell phones are trackers with a variety of apps that will monitor where children are and what they are doing. For older kids, parents need to think carefully and talk frequently about the intersection between privacy and trust.
Some kids may benefit from additional supervision, but parents must keep their eyes on the ultimate goal—raising children who are responsible and confident enough to make their own decisions about staying safe in a complicated world. That, of course, can be done without a tracking unit. For advice, consult the common sense tip sheets from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at missingkids.org/publications/safety.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing about families and technology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart, a book that describes a highly effective way to address conflict in families, schools, and communities.