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Want to Keep a Closer Eye on the Kids?

Let GPS and other tracking devices help you

By Bill Camarda

You already know that GPS devices can help you get where you’re going. But don’t forget what GPS stands for: Global Positioning System. It can also tell you where stuff is – including the “stuff” you love and care about the most.

Those are the GPS applications we’ll focus on in this article. We’ll show you how to use GPS to track your kids and help keep them safe. And, while you’re at it, you’ll even discover a couple of great new GPS tools for protecting your pet!
Reducing the world’s scariest risk

It’s the worst nightmare of any parent: losing track of a child. Thanks to GPS (and other advanced technologies), you can significantly reduce that risk.
By one estimate, more than 40% of 8-12 year olds already have a cellphone. For many parents, the simplest and most inexpensive way to GPS-enable your child is to give him or her a GPS-enabled cellphone, and purchase the GPS locator service option offered by many cellphone companies.

Sprint, Verizon Wireless, and Alltel are among the carriers that offer this option; a few still don’t. These GPS tracking options typically cost around $9.99 per month.
If your carrier doesn’t offer a good option, you can still get GPS cellphone service. One option is the pay-as-you-go Kajeet cellphone service, which is designed specifically for children, and also offers a $9.99/month “GPS Phone Locator” option.
Another choice: the kid-friendly Wherifone, from Wherify Wireless. Whenever you want to know where your child is, their Wherifone can be located via the Web or your own phone. And, if you’re looking on the web, Wherify will show you both street maps and aerial photos. One important Wherifone feature: aided-GPS, which helps the phone’s locator feature work better in lightly obstructed areas such as woodframe buildings, cars, and under dense foliage.
Which brings us to the significant limitations of GPS-based locator services. First of all, conventional GPS technology requires a line of sight to the GPS satellites circling high above the Earth. That’s not always available – especially if, God forbid, your child’s been kidnapped. As you may have noticed if you use a car GPS, severe weather can also sometimes interfere with reception.
More prosaically, these GPS features only work when the phone’s turned on!

Non-cellphone (and non-GPS) alternatives

There are alternatives that don’t involve cellphones. For example, you can purchase a lightweight GPS tracking device that’ll clip directly onto your child’s pants, backpack, or shoes, or can be worn as a watch. Like cellphone-based GPS tracking, these systems “talk” to an overhead GPS satellite – so most will only work if there’s a clear line of sight to that satellite. But once they’re turned on, your child can forget about them.
The downside: these devices often cost $150 or more. Plus, there’s a monthly subscription fee – which can really add up if you want to equip more than one child. What’s more, some service plans limit the number of times you can track your child each month.

It’s worth mentioning that some child-tracking devices don’t rely on GPS. For example, there’s the $189.95 Brickhouse Child Locator, a radio frequency homing device that’s perfect for those times you take your child to a theme park, sporting event, or anywhere where it’s easy for them to wander away.

You might’ve seen the Brickhouse Child Locator featured in a Duracell battery commercial. It’s a two-part system. You get a hand-held device, and you apply an inconspicuous “homing tag” to your child’s shoes, jacket, or backpack. Then, if your child wanders beyond a “safety zone”, the BrickHouse Child Locator beeps, vibrates, and visually leads you to the tag -- up to 600 feet away.

The other nightmare: when they drive

This is all well and good for younger kids, but what happens when they get older? What happens when that other huge parental nightmare comes into play: they start driving? It’s well known that some of the most dangerous drivers are those just starting out – especially when they’re driving with other kids in the car, or they’re driving in places you don’t want them to. For a growing number of parents, the solution is to install a GPS tracker in the car their child will drive.

That’s a controversial solution, of course: one that won’t be appropriate for every family. And one that virtually every young person is likely to resist fiercely. It’s a GPS tracker that can automatically call, text, or email you if your child drives above a preset speed, or travels too far from home, or drives later at night than your ground rules permit. One of the most widely-publicized systems, Teensurance, is provided as an option to Safeco insurance customers in 44 states, for $14.99 per month with a two-year commitment.

There’s only one thing your kids will like about Teensurance: like similar systems, it can unlock their car if they accidentally leave the key inside.

One experimental system, now being tested in Maryland, goes even further, complementing GPS with an in-car camera that – according to the Washington Post – “records the moments before and after an unusual driving maneuver, such as sudden braking or a too-sharp turn.” It can also tell whether your children (and their passengers) are wearing seatbelts. (By the way, the company promises it’ll only upload footage involving unsafe driving.)
You might make more lenient rules if you know there’s an electronic device helping you enforce them. But, chances are, if you go this route, you’ll have a major debate about trust and privacy on your hands. And, of course, quite a few parents won’t even want to debate this: they’ll agree with their kids that this kind of monitoring (or surveillance) just doesn’t feel right to them.

Speaking of family discussions, no tracking system – GPS or otherwise – is a substitute for careful supervision and active parenting!

Not just for kids – your whole family

Kids, needless to say, are not the only members of your family who might benefit from some tracking. Keruve manufactures a specialized GPS tracking device designed specifically for Alzheimer’s patients.

Last but not least, there’s GPS tracking for your pet. Garmin, the folks who sell some of today’s most popular car GPS units, also offer the Garmin Astro DC-30 tracking collar, designed primarily for hunting dogs. Another device, the RoamEO GPS Pet Locator, is designed to locate any pet within a one-mile radius: you can even display tracking distance, velocity, and movement on a color LCD screen, and even track up to three dogs at once.

Best of all, unlike your kid, your dog will not complain!

Bill Camarda has been writing about technology for families, kids, and others for 25 years, starting as an editor for Scholastic's Family Computing Magazine. His 18 computer books include Upgrading & Fixing Networks For Dummies and The Cheapskate's Guide to Bargain Computing. He lives in Ramsey, NJ with his wife and 14-year old son.


Comment by Dave C., posted 11/12/2008, 8:56 AM:

It's not a stretch to monitor your teen's driving performance, particularly in their first few months behind the wheel when most serious accidents happen. This technology has been around forever in the trucking industry and has just been adapted for regular motorists. I'm all for installing web cams and other tracking devices in new driver's cars if it means less teen deaths on the roads.
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