What to consider before using GPS to track your kid

Sooner or later, most parents lose a kid— usually for only a few minutes. Even if it’s brief, the experience is heart-stopping. And it’s given rise to a whole new industry— GPS tracking for kids.

Some parents turn to GPS because the world seems scarier than it was when they were kids. Others want an electronic yenta who can keep an eye on children (and their caregivers) when parents can’t be there. Still others want a better way to supervise and enforce family rules about safety. For those who really can’t take care of themselves— very young children, kids with disabilities, even pets or elders with dementia— tracking devices may provide peace of mind.

For children, that can be a problem. Experts point out that tracking devices can encourage both passivity and a false sense of security in children as well as parents. As parents find themselves counting on surveillance, they may be less intentional about helping kids anticipate and avoid risks. Instead of learning what they need to know to navigate confidently and safely in a risky world, kids depend on the panic button that summons Mom.

Before utilizing GPS technology, consider these questions:

What does it do? Some trackers, such as Trax, do nothing but show location. They can be attached to children, elders, pets or even a laptop that tends to wander off. Many units resemble watches or function like flip phones.
What’s the technology? Tracking units that use GPS depend on satellites and some provide coverage pretty much anywhere on the planet. Other devices use the cellphone network so they won’t work if the child wanders out of range. Still, other devices like My Buddy Tag use Bluetooth technology. Their reach is limited, though that may be just fine if you’re trying to keep tabs on a child in the backyard or your local park.
What does it monitor? At the very least a tracking device should pinpoint a child’s location. Some send a signal at intervals; others allow continuous tracking though that may drain the battery. Many units make it possible to set up safety zones or geofences and send an alert if the child goes beyond those boundaries.
Is it complicated? For very young children, simplicity is a virtue. Tinitell, for example, is a band with a button. If a child pushes the button, the device calls preprogrammed numbers until someone picks up. Check the app as well as the device. If it has lots of features, be sure customer support is readily available.
How long is the battery life? Even the best tracker won’t work if the battery is dead. Find out how long the battery lasts, how it has to be charged and whether there’s a low battery alert.
Is the device secure? If you have to sign in to get information about your child’s location, it’s possible for other people to sign in, too. What precautions has the company taken to prevent hacking? What kind of alerts will you get if there is a security breach? What kind of communication is possible? Some units have a big panic button a child can press. Some allow one-way communication.
Will your child wear it? Trackers such as HereO feature bright colors that may appeal to a pre-schooler and be decidedly uncool in elementary school. Check bands to be sure they are flexible and won’t cause irritation. And think about how big the device is in relation to your child. Multi-feature devices may be too bulky for little wrists.
How much does it cost? Tracking devices range from $40 to $200. Many devices also require a monthly service contract that can cost from $4 to $40 per month. Before signing with a new service, check your existing cell phone provider to see if they offer a better deal on a device.

Some kids may benefit from additional supervision, but parents must keep their eyes on the ultimate goal— raising children who are responsible and confident enough to make their own decisions about staying safe in a complicated world. That, of course, can be done without a tracking unit.