Modern Parenting with Modern tools: A State of the Market Overview of GPS tracking of Children

by Stephen Schroeder - Mar 02, 2017 Category: Family
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In Japan, children are encouraged and taught to be independent at a very young age. Many Japanese children, as early as seven years old, go to school by themselves, negotiating the morning rush hour crowd and navigating the notoriously hyper-complex world of Japanese subway systems. In the process, they grow to be vigilant and proactive in problem-solving. Certainly, this is quite uniquely Japanese — a society with the lowest crime rates in the world despite its large population. In many other countries, such an early form of independence for children is unthinkable and unfeasible, due to safety and security reasons, among others. But in this age of "modern parenting," there are ways to manage such parenting efforts with the help of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology.

GPS tracking devices or child locators have been available for more than a decade now to help you monitor the location of your children when they are on their own. Manufacturers tend to market the devices for children between four and 12 years old, an age group less likely to own and operate smartphones. The aim is to know in real-time where your children are, especially in times of danger or when they are distressed, so that you know where to find them, can infer what they are up to, and can help manage the situation. After all, in the post-9/11 era, terrorism is a real added concern. Knowing the location of your children during any attack or event is critical.

However, while knowing the location of your children is intuitively positive, not every parent agrees that tracking or monitoring children in any form is a good idea. The topic has generated much interest and heated debates on parenting forums, product reviews and various media sources: to track or not to track — and why? The responses boil down to one of parenting philosophy, where the "against" camp generally believes that tracking children imparts the wrong values and message to children. Furthermore, many do not see the necessity of it.

The discussion also exposes the frustrations of buying and using the devices, where the experience is generally subpar. For one, many parents find it difficult to choose the right product: There are many products on the market with trade-offs or missing features. So far, it seems there is a lack of a comprehensively good product. Secondly, when parents do buy GPS location sharing devices, they have high expectations, especially for expensive devices, and are excited to use them. But the process, from activation to using it, often presents a series of frustrations, mainly due to bad customer service and technical glitches in products. Ultimately many frustrated customers opt to return the devices or simply do not use them.

GPS tracking products for children

GPS tracking products for children are readily available. Most devices either come as wearables, as in watches, bracelets and pendants, or in small gadgets that can be easily attached to the children's clothing, school bags, etc. They come in colorful designs to incentivize children to use them. Some devices come with screens, some without. Most are small and lightweight – made of plastic and rubber. To enable GPS tracking, the devices usually connect to the internet via SIM cards and/or Wi-Fi when available, while some devices are Bluetooth enabled only and do not require data subscriptions. Some have built-in SIM cards. Parents supervise and manage the device from the bundled product app that they install on their smartphones. Some of the product apps require contracts to operate.

With ongoing miniaturization of the GPS chipset and computer processors, coupled with cheaper data connectivity and advancements in materials science, GPS tracking devices are becoming more affordable to use, sturdier and more mobile than ever — making possible myriads of product choices, from simple receivers to sophisticated smartwatches. Products like PocketFinder, for example, are basic keychain-sized receivers that come with several functions.

Pocketfinder: Basic device but come with advance features like geo-fencing and speed alerts
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Pocketfinder: Basic device but comes with advanced features like geo-fencing and speed alerts

GizmoGadget, on the other hand, is a smartwatch that can send messages and make two-way calls. It also comes with a fitness tracker that can tell you how active your children are at any time.

Gizmogadget: smartwatch with touchscreen
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Gizmogadget: Smartwatch with touchscreen

An even more advanced smartwatch is dokiWatch, which has a camera to facilitate video calls.

dokiWatch: The video call feature makes it a cool and fun gadget for children
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dokiWatch: The video call feature makes it a cool and fun gadget for children

Every developer tries to differentiate its product by incorporating its own unique features: built-in games, water resistance, one-button talk, geo-fencing, automatic alert call to numerous contacts, listen-in/voice monitoring, video call, device tamper alert, water contact alert, real-time tracking, calendar app, regular updates, late departure warning, speed limit alert, and more.

The features are useful in different circumstances. For example, if you have a swimming pool in the backyard, you may want to consider a simple budget device like Buddytag that can alert you when the device is submerged in water for more than a specified time.

Many products require the purchase of the device followed by a monthly subscription for the featured services, on top of mobile data charges. The average subscriptions range from US$10 to US$25 per month. For example, AmberAlertGPS refers to the American sex offender registry to identify risky areas and alerts you if your child is near a sex offender. Or, if you are always traveling, Kigo Watch has a monthly plan for unlimited worldwide connectivity coverage of its tracking service.

More than just peace of mind

Parents who monitor their children with GPS tracking devices do so for peace of mind and to improve their quality of life. Raising children can be difficult, stressful and tiring, especially when those children are wild, hyperactive or have adventurous personalities with a penchant for wandering. They can be mini-monsters! Working parents, who must balance their careers and family life, sometimes just want to focus on their work and be productive. When parents rest at home, they don't want to be disturbed every minute. By monitoring the location of their children, they gain peace of mind, knowing that their children are safe. At any point, they can supervise their child and be alerted of his or her movement remotely and in real-time, all without the constant worry or the need to nag and ask the child to text or call. So, it is not difficult to understand the appeal of "tracking" children.

Proponents of tracking children argue that the peace of mind helps parents feel more comfortable and willing to give extra freedoms to their children. With the use of geo-fencing, for example, parents can set up area perimeters where children can be free to explore on their own — and perhaps to even further places. And with this extra freedom, children can learn to be more independent and confident, without having to check with their parents at every step.

If done respectfully, it is also a good way for parents to encourage more accountability, to instill some discipline in young children, while ensuring that the children are where they say they are. Parents can set rules and instructions for children to follow — like meal schedules and curfews.

Children with special needs

GPS tracking is especially useful for children with special needs, including those with difficulty communicating, such as autistic children. Tracking devices like Angelsense focus on this niche market.

Angelsense: A specialist product for children with special needs category
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Angelsense: A specialist product for children with special needs

A particularly useful but rather controversial feature of Angelsense is the "listen in" capability, which parents can use to listen in on the surroundings of the child without alerting anybody that the device is in use. While this is a practical way to ensure that the child is safe, it is controversial because people fear it can be used to abuse privacy.

Legal privacy concerns

American students are protected in school under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), which protects the confidentiality of information that may divulge the identity of a student, including geolocationi. Schools must be careful not to release student information to third parties. In fact, "access by third parties would potentially if not actually violate state and federal privacy laws such as FERPA, which has been interpreted by the U. S. Department of Education as including audio or video recording of students on buses, in hallways and in classes"ii. A case in point:  In 2014, Prince Edward County Elementary School in Virginia disallowed an autistic kindergarten student from coming back to school because his medically prescribed GPS tracking device had the listen-in featureiii.

Anglesense found a solution to the issue. The manufacturer has introduced an automated way to disable the listen-in feature when used in school, according to pre-set school schedules. It has also enabled school staff to access the shared platform of the Angelsense app so they can use it to look after the studentiv.

Gadgets are not replacements for parenting. Parents who choose to use GPS devices to track their children are open to using technology while still training and supervising their children in traditional ways. They see technology as a complementary parenting tool for raising their children. It is still up to the parents to teach their children values and responsibilities. However, gadgets can help parents get that extra peace of mind.

'No' to GPS tracking of children

Some parents disagree with tracking children altogether. They think that doing so teaches the wrong value and sends the wrong message to children. From a moral standpoint, some parents think that GPS tracking is wrong because it violates children’s privacy and limits their personal freedom — even when the parents are the ones monitoring the children. It also makes the children feel like they must accept surveillancev. In the US, the Constitution and privacy laws guarantee equal protection to individuals regardless of their age. Technically, children, even those in the age group of four to 12 years old, are protected by privacy laws. As a child’s primary caregivers and legal guardians, however, parents are entrusted to act in the best interest of the child and to ensure his or her wellbeing, with or without the child’s permission or approval. So, in some ways, children are not guaranteed privacy and freedom until they are old enough to be responsible for themselves — as to when that is, it is up to debate. In most countries, people are legally considered minors until they reach 18 years old. Whether using GPS to track your kid is right or wrong is still up for debate, but so far there have not been any legal precedents of children challenging their parents on GPS trackingvi.

The anti-tracking camp, by not tracking their children, are trying to send the message that they respect the privacy of their children and trust them. They do not want to "shackle" their children by keeping them under constant surveillance. They think this would be detrimental to the freedom of their children to express themselves. 

As for the argument that GPS tracking helps prevent kidnapping, some parents feel that being overprotective could instill fear in their children, as well as create a false sense of security. There are many tragic events that are far more likely to occur than kidnapping: Falling off a bicycle or getting hit by a car are just two obvious examples. Some parents reject tracking because they feel it is not acceptable to let the fear of kidnapping run their lives, saying that this fear might unintentionally alter the behavior of their children as they are growing up. In their estimation, GPS tracking may have a negative impact on a child’s self-esteem, self-confidence and attitude toward life in general.

These parents also dislike the idea of using GPS tracking as a disciplinary tool for misbehavior, such as truancy, saying that doing so is the equivalent of "criminalizing" childrenvii. And at such a young age, it could be a mentally stigmatic experience that could scar their life negatively, leading them to live a life of anxiety. 

Get real: kidnapping

Parents who oppose GPS tracking are also not convinced that monitoring can prevent kidnapping or assist in rescues. According to their viewpoint, there is nothing that will stop a determined criminal. These parents say that kidnappers are most often close relatives or friends who are familiar with the child and will know about the device anyway. Besides, some devices look so obvious that they are easy targets to remove. Worse, if a kidnapper were to find a tracking device, he might harm the child in a fit of anger or panic. Some parents suggest that children should instead be taught self-defense and street smarts.

Just so unnecessary

Some parents think GPS tracking is a waste of money. They argue that the same children who ought to wear GPS trackers are the same kids who should be supervised anyways, with or without a device. They often complain that it is difficult to get the young child to wear or operate the device properly. They also dislike that children might accidentally call emergency services. If the device is small enough, it could be a swallow hazard for very young children. So, it seems not every child is a suitable candidate for using a GPS tracking device.

These parents say they live in safe neighborhoods, making the GPS tracker unnecessary. Some parents prefer to negotiate their own family boundaries and curfews with their children rather than using an electronic device to create a "geo-fence." For example, some parents permit their children to go three blocks from the house and to be home for dinner or before dark — or else the child will be punished. They feel this is a more personable approach to parenting — to be more involved in the development of the children.

Parents also voice concerns about the security integrity of the device, worrying that hackers could use the device to reveal the location of their children. Therefore, any sensitive digital input should be encrypted.

Unsatisfactory options – can’t get it all

The GPS technology in any GPS tracking device works the same way. Any GPS tracking device can be used to track anyone or anything — adults, minors, pets and assets can all be tracked. However, on GPS tracking apps and devices that are made for children, manufacturers must understand the needs of parents and children and design their devices accordingly. However, developing the ideal product is not as easy as it sounds.

How do you coax a five-year-old to use a GPS tracker? For starters, other than being functional, a GPS tracking device for children needs to be small, lightweight, to be engaging enough for the child to want to use it, be easy to operate, have a long battery life, powerful receivers... the list goes on. Manufacturers try to balance all these features and their cost when developing a new product.

It is inevitable that there are some trade-offs between the features and sticking points. Short battery lives, for example, seemed to be an enduring sticking point. Reviewers complained online that attractive devices like Kigo Watch, with its full color touch-screen interface, have a charge that only lasts for a day. For a GPS tracking watch designed to be used when travelling, a short battery life is a killer, meaning users need to frequently recharge it on the go. This is a stressful inconvenience for parents. But Kigo Watch features "tamper alert/wrist detection"viii, which alerts parents to deliberate device removal during kidnappings. The device has a motion sensor that can detect when the watch is being removed and can trigger a call and message to the appointed contact list.

Kigo watch: Higher GPS connectivity and use can really drain power
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Kigo Watch: Higher GPS connectivity and use can really drain power

On the other end of the spectrum, the Weenect Kids GPS device is designed to last seven days on one charge. The device has a single panic button and two way communications but has no screen, cannot be worn and does not have any fancy functions.

To make GPS tracking more child friendly, some products like AmbyGear come up with an interactive platform to make it more enjoyable to the child wearing it. AmbyGear is a smartwatch tracker that allows parents to set up activities that the children can perform to collect points as rewards. It also comes with educational games and activities. But again, it has a short battery life.

Ambygear: More than just a locator watch
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Ambygear: More than just a locator watch

Simple products like Lineable are designed to last one year per charge. It does not have a screen, however, and it uses a unique feature called "Crowdsource GPS," which enables people only within its range to locate the child. Its maximum tracking range is severely limited, just 98 feet, because it uses a Bluetooth connection for tracking, not real GPS — many parents complain that this is quite useless.

Tinitell is a device with single large button that claims to be the simplest device on the market. Children just push the big button and say one of 12 contact names to get connected. But the simplicity comes with a hefty price of USD$149 for each device, plus other costs. At least it is a fun phone for children.

 

Tinitell: A fun wearable mobile phone for kids
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Tinitell: A fun wearable mobile phone for kids

The point is, with so many trade-offs, developing the ultimate device is a huge headache for manufacturers. It is also a headache for parents. Parents need to choose a product that has the best combination of features to fit their requirements. That is when it becomes frustrating: knowing there are good features here and there, but not all the desired features in in any one product. In addition, many parents are not sure just what features they really want.

A frustrating experience

The frustrations don't end there. Parents who invest in one of these GPS trackers are excited to use them with their children and explore the features. They buy the devices with high expectations, only to face technical glitches. Not all claims by manufacturers are credible and many parents are disillusioned with the products after they buy them. Some have complained of expensive products out of the box that do not work. There are many positive purchase experiences, but there have also been enough instances of disappointment that it has tainted the industry as a whole — unhappy buyers are more likely to write about their experiences online than are those who are satisfied with their purchase.

A device that seems to encapsulate buyers' frustration is HereO. At US$199 per unit, it is one of the more expensive GPS trackers on the market. It has received overwhelmingly bad reviews. Of the 18 reviewers who bought the product, more than 12 gave it a 3-star product or below. Some found the device lagging in performance: it took 60 seconds to track the location of the device, which users said was slow and irritating. Although it did find the device, users said that anything could happen in 60 seconds. Some users said the GPS tracking was either inaccurate or got stuck at a previous location for a long time. A recent reviewer complained about customer service, saying he needed to contact customer service to activate the services, but that he could not reach them after repeated attemptsix.

hereO: At US$199 a piece though, it has much to prove in terms of value
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hereO: At US$199 a piece, it has much to prove in terms of value

Poor ratings on Amazon are prevalent in many other GPS devices. Buddytag got a 72% review on a 3-star product rating and below, out of 50 reviews. Complaints include inaccurate GPS tracking, alarm sounding even when the child is right beside the cellphone, constantly having to restart the device and connecting it to the smartphone, difficulty for a five-year-old child to activate the alarm button, etcx. Lineable was at 56% on a 3-star product rating and below, out of 68 reviews. Complaints include a buggy application, poor customer service, poor battery life, short Bluetooth range, etc.xi.

Even when the products receive generally good reviews, i.e. a 4-star rating and above, it is never very highly rated. Good ratings only range from 50% - 70% favorability. For example, KidGPS Tracker stands at 65% by 57 reviewersxii. Trax Play stands at 57% by 30 reviewersxiii. A notably higher rated device, Tick Talk 1.0S, stands at 69% by 58 reviewers. Positive feedback includes clear and easy set-up, a beautiful touch screen, good two-way call quality, the ability to send text messages, a good plastic case, among othersxiv. While the reviews are generally positive, it reflects to some extent the dissatisfaction and reservations in the market. If manufacturers deliver what the market wants, then the market will reward the manufacturer to some extent — as Tick-Talk 1.0S shows.

Tick-talk: Delivering what the market wants in simple but well-built quality device with good software
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Tick Talk: Simple, well-built device with good software

In conclusion

GPS tracking of children is not yet a mainstream practice. Those who are against using GPS devices to monitor children have legitimate reasons, as do proponents of GPS tracking. There are many different parenting philosophies, which are often rooted in the society or environment in which one grows up. Perhaps these philosophies also reflect the experiences of the parents themselves. Parents who grew up in a one way tend to want their children to grow up in the same way. All parents, opponents and proponents of GPS tracking alike, want their children to be happy. They just approach parenting differently. Using a GPS device to responsibly monitor children can give them more freedom to explore, while giving parents peace of mind. For parents who use GPS tracking, posts on forums and product reviews show that they find it difficult to find the right tracking device. Many posters are disappointed buyers, in some way or another. On the other hand, it is not easy for manufacturers to develop devices for children. Children are difficult users to please. One thing for sure, as technology advances, some of the glitches and shortcomings that are frustrating buyers will one day be fixed: Tesla batteries, anyone? Parents will only get better products from here forward.

 

Sources
  1. Bill Hornback & Kyle Holmes, Where are we headed, Aug 3, 2016 http://schoolslegalservice.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/15/2015/11/B-pp-1-5-complete-GPS-Trackers.pdf
  2. Ashley Monfort, GPS tracker not allowed for Prince Edward child with autism, Nov 15, 2014 http://www.nbc12.com/story/27271705/gps-tracker-not-allowed-for-prince-edward-child-with-autism
  3. Ashley Monfort
  4. Angelsense http://support.angelsense.com/Listen-In/881435721/Is-Listen-In-Legal.htm 
  5. Nicole Kobie, Would you use a GPS device to track your child? Feb 5th, 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/feb/05/big-mother-gps-tracking-technology-threat-privacy-childhood
  6. Martha. L. Arias, Internet Law - GPS Tracking for Children: Is It a Violation of Children’s Privacy? http://www.ibls.com/internet_law_news_portal_view.aspx?s=latestnews&id=2262
  7. Sonia Mastros, Student GPS Tracking: Security And Legal Issues Schools Need To Know, March 3, 2015 http://www.busboss.com/blog/student-gps-tracking-security-and-legal-issues-schools-need-to-know
  8. hereO https://support.hereofamily.com/hc/en-us/articles/207070479-How-does-the-tamper-alert-work-
  9. HereO GPS watch for Kids https://www.amazon.com/hereO-GPS-Watch-Kids-Lemon/product-reviews/B01BEDX17U/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_show_all_btm?ie=UTF8&reviewerType=avp_only_reviews&sortBy=recent
  10. My BuddyTag with Silicone Wristband, Blue https://www.amazon.com/My-Buddy-Tag-Silicone-Wristband/product-reviews/B00MGTZWMY/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_paging_btm_2?ie=UTF8&reviewerType=avp_only_reviews&sortBy=recent&pageNumber=2
  11. Lineable – Smart Wristband For Kids, Orange, Small https://www.amazon.com/Lineable-Smart-Wristband-Orange-Small/product-reviews/B015E8OHEW/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_paging_btm_2?ie=UTF8&reviewerType=avp_only_reviews&sortBy=recent&pageNumber=2 
  12. KidGPS Tracker, Compatible with Apple iOS, Samsung Galaxy and Other https://www.amazon.com/KidGPS-Compatible-Locating-Monitoring-Children/product-reviews/B017S242GA/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_show_all_btm?ie=UTF8&reviewerType=avp_only_reviews&sortBy=recent
  13. Trax Play NEW Upgraded Live Outdoor GPS Tracker for Children & Pets, Blue https://www.amazon.com/Trax-Play-Upgraded-Outdoor-Children/dp/B01F77ENBW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1488285127&sr=8-1-spons&keywords=trax&psc=1
  14. New Version TickTalk 1.0S Touch Screen Kids Wearable tracker wrist Phone w/ GPS locator, Controlled by Apple and Android phone APP Including FREE Sim Card and Preloaded with $5 (blue) https://www.amazon.com/TickTalk-Wearable-Controlled-Including-Preloaded/dp/B01IJ1VIRU/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1488288430&sr=8-2&keywords=ticktalk