Keeping Kids on a Wireless Leash

The newest hot property in the wireless communications race is the “electronic leash.” Employees often joke that their offices keep them on a leash by providing BlackBerries, cell phones and laptops for anytime, anywhere communication.

Now the concept has spread to parenting: Parents have several options for keeping an electronic eye on their young ones while they’re away from home.

Several companies, including Sprint Nextel and Disney, recently announced plans to offer wireless services to help parents track their kids’ whereabouts using GPS (global positioning system) technology.

The two companies are using the same name for their services — “Family Locator” — but the only other thing they have in common is the use of Sprint’s wireless network. Last week,Verizon Wireless also announced plans to offer a location-based service (LBS) called “Chaperone.”

Tracking Features

The premise of LBS is to allow parents to track their children — or any family member — by using the service to search for that individual’s phone and display the location on a Mapquest-style map.

“To locate a child’s handset, a parent simply clicks on the Family Locator icon on their handset, chooses the name of the child they want to locate, and enters a private pin number as their password for security,” George Grobar, senior vice president and general manager of Disney Mobile, told TechNewsWorld. The parent also has the option of going online to use the Web-based application.

Some services come with a feature that allows parents to set up a “geofence” and alerts them when a child ventures outside of the permitted territory. Other services automatically notify a parent when a child hasn’t shown up at a specific location by a certain time.

Disney worked withWiredsafety.org, an organization that helps protect children in cyberspace, and Teenangels, a division of WiredSafety.org targeting girls aged 14 to 17, to find what they wanted in a safer cell phone services for preteens and teens.

Disney sought information on how teens use their phones, and what control features parents would like to see. The company wanted to better understand the problems associated with cell phone use among young people, according to Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.

Verizon’s Chaperone provides a Web-based application for managing the Migo phone, which is designed for children. Parents can enter up to four numbers that a child can call using the phone.

“If they have purchased the Chaperone [service] with Child Zone feature, they can set up and view child zones — geographic boundaries — that, when the child crosses the boundary, sends the parent a text alert,” said Dale Beasley, manager of Verizon Wireless LBS solutions.

Pros and Cons

One drawback of these services is that they’re limited to specific phones and they don’t work when a phone is turned off or out of signal range. Tweens want phones like those their parents use, which include features like cameras, instant messaging services and ring tones, according to Disney’s Grobar.

Sprint charges US$9.99 per month to install and use its tracking software on 17 of its phones and access the Web-based application. Children, or anyone whose location might need to be monitored, can choose from over 30 phones.

Verizon’s service costs $9.99 a month for the location-viewing feature and $19.99 a month for Child Zone, its boundary-setting and alerts feature. Currently, Verizon’s system only works with the Migo phone for children, but parents and guardians have more choices.

Disney has one phone for kids with another coming soon. Rather than setting a separate price for its Family Locator service, Disney has created several family plans from which to choose.

How accepting kids and tweens will be of such phones remains to be seen, but parents are encouraged to do more than just hand out the tracking phones to their children. Verizon Wireless offers educational tools on its Web site.

“Parents can use these tools to educate their child about the responsibilities of owning a phone — keeping the battery charged, only using the phone at appropriate times, etc.,” explained Beasley.

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