High-Tech Safety Gadgets for Kids

It’s 4 p.m. … Do You Know Where Your Kids Are?

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yle="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Parents’ Anxiety Spawns Array of High-Tech Safety Gadgets for Kids


Every 40 seconds, a child is reported missing in this country – about 800,000 children each year.

Many are found a short while later, unharmed. Many were trying to run away. But some missing children end up dead, the victims of foul play. And some are simply never found.

The National Child Identification Program estimates that, of children who go missing each year:

• 400,000 run away from home

• 300,000 are abducted by family members

• 50,000 are abducted by non-family members

News of a suspected child abduction is heart-wrenching and anxiety-inducing for any parent – let alone the parents of the missing youngster. And this news is always prominently reported by the media, often giving the public the impression that abduction is a constant, serious threat to every child’s safety and well-being.

0pt">It’s not surprising then that a slew of new products have hit the marketplace, aimed at offering parents peace of mind. Many companies are using new technology to create personal safety tools for kids – alarms, devices with global positioning systems (GPS), hidden cameras and the like.

Among these are Motorola’s Home Monitoring and Control System, a comprehensive arrangement of cameras, sensors and software (pricing ranges from $39 for individual pieces to $279 for the “Easy Start Kit”) that can send notifications on the comings and goings of people in a house to mobile phones and email accounts.

0pt">“We were looking into a home security system anyway,” says Rhonda, a mom of teens, “but because we have two teenagers, this worked well for us and we like it a lot!”

From unlocked doors to broken curfews, the system uses various alerts to help Rhonda and her husband keep track of what is going on around the house, even when they are not there.

“We don’t want to spy on our children,” she explains, “but we do like to be able to keep an eye on their activities and to reference particular incidents. It is a useful tool.”

This kind of multi-use home-monitoring system can be quite reassuring to parents who can’t be home at all times when their children are and want to monitor them. But it only works when children are, in fact, in the home.


Small, But Powerful

Several companies have responded to parents’ desire to monitor their children, wherever they may be, with devices small enough to travel with them.

Imagine a GPS locator small enough to fit on a child’s wrist. Wherify Location Services of Redwood Shores offers this transmitter/receiver, intended for kids who probably aren’t old enough to know who Dick Tracy is (much less recall the high-tech communications device the comic strip detective wore on his wrist).

in 0pt">“We pushed the state of the art and made GPS just as small as we could make it,” explains John Cunningham, Wherify’s director of communications.

Unfortunately, the product was just too small for many potential users, including older kids. To alleviate this problem, Wherify will soon come out with a GPS-enabled cell phone, called the Wherifone ($119-$149), which will allow parents to not only locate their children through a computer-aided tracking system, but communicate with them as well.

“Parents will be able to control what numbers their children can call,” Cunningham says of the cell phone, “but it will be even more useful, because more people can use the product and because children can also call out instead of just being located.”

Another new system that links parents and kids directly is the Angel Alert, a monitor that emits an audible signal – or alarm – whenever the receiver-wearing child strays beyond a certain distance from his transmitter-equipped guardian.

“The intent is an early warning solution,” explains Brian Kelleher, vice president of business development for Franzus Co., which makes the Angel Alert. “It is not intended to be a locator, so parents still need to be aware. But this takes the stress out of temporary distractions, especially if you have more than one child.”

yle="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">With no monthly fees or complicated equipment, the Angel Alert provides simple and affordable peace of mind. And because the alarm emits no matter where it is, the Alert can also be used to protect laptops, purses and other valuables.

“The parent can take it off the store shelf and use it without anything further needed,” Kelleher says. “For $40 or less, you can take something home that is reliable and easy to use.”

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Cell Phones Plus …

yle="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Beyond Wherifone’s linking of cell phone and GPS capabilities, other companies are combining these technologies with Internet-based services as well. For example, uLocate Communications Inc. offers systems through its partnerships with GPS-equipped cell phone manufacturers, Mapquest and Teen Arrive Alive that enable parents to track their children’s movements via text messages or secure Web sites.

yle="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">The company’s services “utilize a cell phone’s GPS capability in order to make data actionable,” says uLocate co-founder Geoff Palmer. “That applies in the case of a finder because a child can carry a GPS-enabled cell phone.”

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The idea to use GPS technology to help people find their way around and to keep track of each other came from the recently-enacted e911 mandate, which requires long-distance truckers, emergency response personnel and the like to have tracking capabilities on hand, Palmer says.

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He also points out that “in addition to cell phones, this technology can also be used on dog collars or tags that can go on backpacks.”

Using “geo-fence technology,” which creates electronic boundaries around a given location, uLocate customers can be notified when others (children, for example) arrive at or leave certain locations, such as school.

“I totally trust my daughter,” Palmer says, “but it is still good to know where she is and to know that she arrived where she was supposed to go.”

And, Palmer notes, in addition to easing parents’ minds, this technology can be rewarding for older children. “It gives the kids a reason to have a cell phone,” he says, and it may make parents feel more comfortable allowing their children more independence knowing that they can see where their kids are at any time.


Low-Tech and Reliable

Though impressive in their accuracy (locating a person within 6 to 20 feet in most cases), such systems have not yet convinced every parent to buy into the $4.2 billion GPS market.

When it comes to safety in the home, for example, there are those who still favor the “old reliables” – particularly for babies and toddlers.

“I think many companies are trying to develop some kind of a ‘Lo-Jack’ system for children,” says Carrie Kelley, founder and president of Heart and Home Baby Safety Inc. “But most of the ‘latest and greatest’ products are usually improvements on existing products – none of which I would classify as a ‘technological advance.’”

In fact, Kelley suggests, some of the best means of keeping young children safe in the home are old, lo-tech standards, such as safety gates like the Stairway Special by Cardinal Gates and other devices that are available through specialty catalogs.

“Another example,” she says, “would be the Side Latch created by Safer-Baby Inc. It’s the only latch that can be used when a drawer doesn’t have an upper frame.”

Kelley, who formerly worked for Dorel Juvenile, a company that manufactures various safety items for parents of young children, also cites Dorel’s Tot-Loc, which has been around for some time and helps parents keep young children away from cabinets containing potentially dangerous objects.

“This is as close to ‘technology’ as I can think of,” she says, “because it uses a high-density magnet.”

Beyond plastics and magnets, another great example of common sense overcoming uncommon technology is Who’s Shoes ID™, a simple, patented name tag that attaches by Velcro® to children’s shoelaces. The name tag has a slot on its underside where the parent can fill out and insert important emergency information.
And it costs just $8 for two sets!

Who’s Shoes inventor Mary Lynn Fernau, a mom who has worked with child safety issues for 15 years, points to Occum’s Razor theory – the idea that the simplest solution to a problem is the best – as one motivation for creating the product. Though she realizes the value of technology, Fernau goes with an old reliable when it comes to helping find children who are themselves lost.

“When a child is lost,” she says, “it is a person who finds him. We, therefore, need to educate our children to identify ‘helpful strangers,’ such as the police. These are the people that stop to help a child that is lost.”

Once a “helpful stranger” has found the child, Who’s Shoes comes into play.

“What these people and the child need is a simple tool to reunite the child with the parents,” Fernau says, noting that while 98 percent of pets wear ID tags, only 2 percent of children do.

“An easy-to-use, discreet form of personal ID for the child works best,” she says. “It is always with the child and anyone can use it immediately. GPS devices are wonderful in certain situations, and they are getting better. But how many times do you carry your computer with you, so you can find your child using a GPS device? … Children need a simple, usable, affordable solution that goes with them everyday, everywhere. That is what is most important.”


Artificial Supervision

na">Whether high- or low-tech, these kinds of monitoring devices should never lull parents into a false sense of security about their children’s well-being, safety experts say. A parent’s actual presence provides the best supervision.

Furthermore, as kids continually strive for more independence, these devices can be considered both good and bad.

“All technologies are two-edged swords,” says Paul Levinson, author of  the 2004 book Cellphone: The Story of the World’s Most Mobile Medium and How It Has Transformed Everything. “There has never been a technology that does not both help and hurt. So in the end, the technology is good if it does more help than harm.”

While parents may like the idea of being able to keep watch over their kids, the kids may resent having Mom and Dad literally in their pockets. “As far as technologies that help parent-child [communication], this is a big plus,” Levinson suggests, “but at the same time, we have to be aware that the kids may feel that they are losing independence.”

On the other hand, he notes, the fact that parents can now keep better track of their children may actually encourage them to let their children go.

na">“Kids want to go out on their own,” he says, “so these technologies help parents stay in touch with their kids and, therefore, allow them to roam a little bit further and with more freedom than they might have had before. So, in that way, these technologies help and benefit the relationship.”

It is still a relationship, however, that needs constant tending.

“Gadgets are no substitute for proper supervision,” says Mike Livingston of the National Safe Kids Campaign. “Parents have to do parenting and caretakers have to give care.”