Keep tabs on kids with technology
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 authorised 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 dialling each of the authorised people until one of them answers.
Dr Sandra 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.
But the technology offered by the watches and similar products could be a mixed blessing, said Ms Lisa Damour, a psychologist who focuses on parenting.
"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.
The panic button might have an unintended effect that's not in the best interest of the child, she added. "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."
Another new tracking device, the tiny Trax, also pairs with a smartphone app to allow parents to find their children, particularly very young ones.
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.
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.
For parents who opt for smartphones even for young children, many wireless services offer programs that track the phones of family members, sending a text or e-mail message to parents telling them, for example, when their child's phone arrives home after school.
Dr 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. "We still have to remind them again and again that they have to let us know where they are and not wander off."