Most parents have experienced that feeling of fear when a young child wanders off at the playground or disappears during a trip to the supermarket. New technology, in the form of voice watches and miniature sensing devices, is aimed at thwarting such distress by keeping track of children who are too young to carry a smart phone.
The new devices use GPS, Wi-Fi and other location-tracking technology and can be linked to apps on a parent’s phone. One device, a watch coming from Filip Technologies later this year, tracks a child’s location and lets him or her get voice calls from up to five people authorized by the child’s parents. (Children lift the watch to their ear or mouth when communicating.)
The watch also has a red panic button that children can push if, for example, they suddenly become separated from their parents in a crowd. Then the watch starts dialing each of the authorized people until one answers. AT&T will be the network provider for the watch; its price has not been announced.
Sandra L. Calvert, a professor of psychology and the director of the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University, views the watches and related products as extensions of the way parents use smart phones to keep track of older children.
“From a child’s perspective, a parent is like an anchor,” she said. These devices allow the child to move farther and farther away, yet the parent knows where the child is. “If a child gets lost in a store and can push a little button, their parents can find them,” she said. “It helps them to know they are in a range that seems to be safe.”
But the technology offered by the watches and similar products could be a mixed blessing, said Lisa Damour, a psychologist who focuses on parenting and directs the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and contributes to Motherlode blog of The New York Times.
“I can understand how a parent might want to know if their child is having a problem, but I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful for children to always be able to turn to their parents when they are struggling,” she said. “We want children to develop problem-solving skills and the capacity to manage stress” as they practice drawing on their own resources, or those of teachers, friends and others around them.
The panic button might have an unintended effect that’s not in the best interest of the child, she said.
“It may reduce the parents’ anxiety to give their child a panic button, but I can readily imagine that it increases the child’s anxiety,” she said. “It sends a strong message that the child is at real risk of danger. This goes against what we know statistically.”
In reality, children are safer from abduction by strangers than they’ve been in decades, said Lisa M. Jones, a research associate professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center. “Abductions in the traditional sense of someone taken by someone else they don’t know, with the intention of keeping or harming the child - that’s quite rare,” she said. “The vast majority of children are victimized by people close to them.”
But even though such abductions are rare, she said, “obviously we are terrified by them.”