c.2013 New York Times News Service
c.2013 New York Times News Service
Most parents have experienced that feeling of fear when a young child wanders off at the playground or disappears during a trip to the supermarket. New technology, in the form of voice watches and miniature sensing devices, is aimed at thwarting such distress by keeping track of children who are too young to carry a smartphone.
The new devices use GPS, Wi-Fi and other location-tracking technology and can be linked to apps on a parent’s phone. One device, a watch coming from Filip Technologies later this year, tracks a child’s location and lets him or her get voice calls from up to five people authorized by the child’s parents. (Children lift the watch to their ear or mouth when communicating.)
The watch also has a red panic button that children can push if, for example, they suddenly become separated from their parents in a crowd. Then the watch starts dialing each of the authorized people until one answers. AT&T will be the network provider for the watch; its price has not been announced.
Sandra L. Calvert, a professor of psychology and the director of the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University, views the watches and related products as extensions of the way parents use smartphones to keep track of older children.
“From a child’s perspective, a parent is like an anchor,” she said. These devices allow the child to move farther and farther away, yet the parent knows where the child is. “If a child gets lost in a store and can push a little button, their parents can find them,” she said. “It helps them to know they are in a range that seems to be safe.”
But the technology offered by the watches and similar products could be a mixed blessing, said Lisa Damour, a psychologist who focuses on parenting and directs the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and contributes to Motherlode blog of The New York Times.
“I can understand how a parent might want to know if their child is having a problem, but I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful for children to always be able to turn to their parents when they are struggling,” she said. “We want children to develop problem-solving skills and the capacity to manage stress” as they practice drawing on their own resources, or those of teachers, friends and others around them.
The panic button might have an unintended effect that’s not in the best interest of the child, she said.
“It may reduce the parents’ anxiety to give their child a panic button, but I can readily imagine that it increases the child’s anxiety,” she said. “It sends a strong message that the child is at real risk of danger. This goes against what we know statistically.”
In reality, children are safer from abduction by strangers than they’ve been in decades, said Lisa M. Jones, a research associate professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center. “Abductions in the traditional sense of someone taken by someone else they don’t know, with the intention of keeping or harming the child — that’s quite rare,” she said. “The vast majority of children are victimized by people close to them.”
But even though such abductions are rare, she said, “obviously we are terrified by them.”
Jonathan Peachey, chief executive of Filip Technologies, said the watch might well increase a child’s anxiety, “but I would question whether that’s a bad thing.” With the watch, children have a sense that they can always talk to their parents in threatening situations. “That’s a conversation, and a very positive one for parents to have with their child,” he said.
Another new tracking device, the tiny Trax, also pairs with a smartphone app to allow parents to find their children, particularly very young ones, said Tobias Stenberg, a co-founder of Wonder Technology Solutions, a company in Stockholm that makes the device.
The tracker is meant for those worrisome moments when parents trying to keep an eye on a child playing in the garden, for example, suddenly discover that he or she isn’t there.
“Your first reaction is a bit of panic, but if you look at your phone, you can see, ‘Oh, she’s returned to her room,’” Stenberg said.
The Trax, to be available later this month, costs $249 and includes a subscription for two years’ use in more than 30 countries, including the United States. After that, the company will charge a small monthly fee. Parents can draw boundaries on the screens of their smartphones, creating an electronic fence within which their child can roam. But if the child crosses the digital fence, the tracker alerts the parents, Stenberg said. And if the satellite signal is lost inside a building, for example, the Trax uses motion and direction sensors to determine the child’s position. (The device can also keep track of dogs, he said.)
For parents who opt for smartphones even for young children, many wireless services, like AT&T’s FamilyMap, offer programs that track the phones of family members, sending a text or email to parents telling them, for example, when their child’s phone arrives home after school.
Lynn Schofield Clark, an associate professor at the University of Denver and author of “The Parent App,” said parents who equip their young children with tracking devices still have to try to balance the parental instinct to protect their offspring with the need to nurture their sense of independence and responsibility.
Children can’t be protected by gadgets alone, she said — they also have to learn the basics of being a responsible family member: “We still have to remind them again and again that they have to let us know where they are and not wander off.”