Big Mother is watching

Alarmed by screaming headlines about abducted and abused children, more and more parents are using technology to keep tabs on their kids. But are satellite-linked stuffed animals and I.D.-encoded clothing a sign of parental responsibility -- or paranoia?

Published July 25, 2005 8:01PM (EDT)

For the past two years, Jason and Ashley Pratt, ages 15 and 13, have had an unusual nanny. ULocate -- a Java program that has been downloaded onto their Nextel mobile phones -- pairs with GPS satellites to track the kids' location 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and relays their movements to their parents over a secure Internet site and via cellphone alerts. Every time the children leave a 400-foot radius around their home or school, their father, Tom Pratt, gets a message notifying him they have exited their "geofence." "That way we can call them up and make sure they're OK," explains his wife, Nicky Pratt, from the family's Garden City, N.Y., home. "Some people think we're awful - they say things like, 'How can you follow your kids?' -- but the fact is, they're my kids, and it's my preference. And when I think of what just happened to that poor girl in Idaho, I know that this is the way it has to be."

The Pratts are hardly alone in their anxiety. "To be perfectly honest, after looking at the sex offender map online, it's impossible not to be concerned about my family's safety," says David Gomillion, a 26-year-old information technology director from Bay County, Fla. "There are predators everywhere -- across the street, down the road, literally hundreds within a couple miles and thousands within a dozen miles." Though his son is only 11 months old, Gomillion has already begun researching the kid-tracker market to prepare for the day when his son is more mobile. "I've tried a few products and I'm not convinced the technology is there yet," he says. "But it's certainly the right idea."

The urge to protect one's children is a primal instinct, but even the most devoted parent cannot watch over a child every single second of the day -- nor, many would argue, should they. And despite what you might have thought when you were 5, your mother does not have eyes in the back of her head. But where biology has failed, technology provides a solution. Over the past two years a flood of state-of-the-art child-surveillance systems has arrived on the consumer market. Equipped with wireless, radio and GPS technology, these battery-operated babysitters promise to act in loco parentis, keeping constant watch over thousands of children around the globe.

A decade ago, concerned parents turned to static-riddled baby monitors and bright nylon kid leashes to keep tabs on their children. Now moms and dads with the financial wherewithal can outfit their offspring with satellite-linked gizmos, stuffed animals with eerie electric eyes, and chips that know how fast and in what direction a car is moving. In February, the officials at Brittan Elementary School in Sutter, Calif., caused an uproar in the community when they began requiring all students to wear encoded RFID (radio frequency identification) tags while on school grounds. But children's clothing designer Lauren Scott of California appears to have taken that controversy in stride -- announcing last week that the company has partnered with SmartWear Technologies to launch a line of pajamas embedded with RFID tags. Target has already placed an order and expects to begin carrying the sleepwear early next year. Recently, the tracking devices' saturation point in pop culture seemed to arrive during an episode of Hulk Hogan's new VH1 reality show, "Hogan Knows Best," when the Hulk himself decided to surreptitiously install a GPS device in his 16-year-old daughter's car so he could keep an eye on her while she went out with a much older date.

Combining the status and allure of innovative gadgetry with feel-good family values, companies like Wherify Wireless, Teen Arrive Alive , uLocate, Digital Angel and DriveDiagnostics stand to make millions playing off the anxieties of parents. If it all sounds a bit too much like science fiction, well, welcome to our strange new world -- where control and peace of mind are commodities parents can pick up at the mall, along with designer strollers and diaper bags.

"It's hardly surprising that families respond to these products," says Frank Schroth, a spokesman for uLocate, the Massachusetts-based company whose programs allow small businesses, and consumers like the Pratts, to track people and property using standard cellphones. "They give parents the satisfaction of knowing that even though work and commitments take them away from their children, they can still keep an eye on them."

Indeed, according a study by the U.S. government's Council of Economic Advisors, between 1969 and 1999, working couples lost an average of 22 hours of "family time" each week. And as greater numbers of parents choose careers over full-time parenting, they may internalize feelings of fear and guilt about leaving their children in the hands of babysitters and daycare workers. The marketing minds behind the child-tracking industry know this -- and have created products that give the illusion of keeping a family close in touch, without requiring any attendant sacrifices to career or lifestyle. If they're willing to fork over more than $800 for GPS Kid Locator Tracker Backpack to carry Johnny's schoolbooks, his mom and dad can stay connected to him all day long -- if only virtually -- from their car or cubicle. "What we have are very technology-savvy parents who are focused on having all the right products for their kids, and the right school, and everything else," explains Dr. Helen Boehm, a board member of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the author of "Fearless Parenting for the New Millenium." "And the fact is, they will go to great lengths to have additional control -- or at least the perception of additional control."

As demand for these devices grows and developments in technology push prices within reach of the middle-class consumer, it does seem ever more likely that the nanny of the new millennium will be more machine than Mary Poppins. In March Microsoft unveiled a prototype for a plush, robotic "Teddy" whose electronic eyes follow a kid's movements using face-recognition software, thus allowing parents to monitor their child via a wireless Internet connection. In what seems like a conscious effort to soften what could be a creepy cyborg image, Leigh Rosenwald, a Microsoft spokeswoman, calls the Teddy an attempt at "a true human-computer interaction" that developers hope will enhance "the way people think, feel and communicate."

In a clever bit of cross-marketing, Microsoft has also initiated designs for a "Family Awareness Clock," inspired by an enchanted timepiece in the Harry Potter series, which uses its hands (and in this case, GPS technology rather than magic), not only to tell time but also to track individual family members' whereabouts throughout the day. "Tracking applications have been around for many years," Rosenwald says. "But we were inspired by J.K. Rowling's take on the form. At this stage we are only exploring different design possibilities, but we hope to build a working prototype soon." And it's certainly not hard to believe that the country's Harry Potter-crazed kids would gladly give up a bit of their privacy to have their very own version of the Weasleys' magic clock in their kitchen.

Wherify Wireless, of Redwood Shores, Calif., pioneered the field of kid-tracking with the release of its Personal Locator, in 2002. A sporty wristwatch-style device that came in kid-friendly colors like "galactic blue" and "cosmic purple," the Personal Locator used GPS technology to pinpoint the wearer's location within a few feet and allowed parents to monitor their child by logging on to a secure Internet site. Nifty extras included a 911 panic button that the wearer could press in case of an emergency, as well as a water- and cut-resistant band that could be locked onto the child's wrist using a remote control (ostensibly to prevent kid snatchers from ditching the device before the child could be found).

For Wherify founder and CEO Timothy Neher, inspiration arrived in 1998, after he momentarily lost track of his niece and nephew during a trip to the zoo. While his charges were quickly recovered, the panic he'd felt haunted him. "It's a feeling every parent feels at one time or another, when you turn around and your child is just gone," Neher explains. "I wondered, 'What if they hadn't turned up right away?' I had no picture of them or anything. And I thought, 'There has to be some sort of technological solution to this problem.'"

The task required years of research and development, but when Neher unveiled the Personal Locator, the response was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. Parenting magazine declared it "the latest must-have," and Oprah called it "unbelievable ... cutting-edge technology that [can] keep your children safe." Though there were kinks that needed working out -- the GPS signal could be lost when a child was indoors, and the wristwatch design was needlessly clunky -- the model sold tens of thousands of units through word of mouth and the Internet.

This year, Wherify plans to launch the sleeker, lighter "Wherifone" -- a palm-size cellphone hybrid that, in addition to having the standard tracking features, allows kids to download games and make limited two-way calls. Aimed at middle-class consumers, the Wherifone will be available at Wal-mart for about $139, plus $14.95 to $29.95 a month, depending on the selected service plan. In addition to big-box retail outlets, Wherify also plans to target "affinity groups" such as MedicAlert and the Autism Society.

By pitching the product to kids as a kind of cellphone with training wheels, Wherify also hopes to ease some of the sting of being under surveillance. "I want to take the Big Brother idea out of the picture," Neher says. "We'd rather think of our products as facilitating family communication. If parents are smart, they'll tell kids how to use it in case of danger, and not force it, because the last thing we want to do is scare teens away from technology that could help them."

Founded by Rob Berry, a partner in the corporation that put 1-800-HowsMyDriving decals on tractor-trailer trucks across the country, Teen Arrive Alive combines a uLocate Java program with GPS-enabled Nextel cellular phone service -- allowing parents to access a secure Internet site with the ability to not only pinpoint their teen's whereabouts to a ten-foot radius but also monitor the direction and speed of any vehicle in which they are traveling. If that's not enough to ensure a peaceful nights sleep, TAA also lets parents set specific boundaries for their children, and it delivers automated text messages or e-mails to the parent should those borders be breached.

It's little surprise that behind many of the corporations that produce kid trackers is a crusading parent. Jack Church, the vice president of Teen Arrive Alive, lost his 19-year-old son, Robert, to a car accident that sent the vehicle off a 15-foot drop and into a small pool of water that couldn't be seen from the road. It took two days of frantic searching to recover Robert's body, though the accident occurred less than a mile from his Texas home.

If Robert Church's car had been equipped with TAA, his tragic story might have had a different ending. Or maybe not. Jack Church refuses to second-guess. "The truth is, it was the middle of the day and there was no reason for me to be online and checking for Robert. But what I do know is if we'd had TAA, it would have saved my wife and me two days of agony, searching and knowing something was wrong and not being able to do anything."

When TAA launched its service in May of last year, it was marketed to parents of drivers as way of teaching traffic safety and responsibility to teens. But to the company's surprise, when news of the device hit the media, the biggest response came from parents of younger children who wondered if the product would work as a stand-alone tracking device as well. "We have parents who sign up saying that they just worry every time their kids leave the house, let alone get behind the wheel," Church says. By now TAA has established a presence in every state in the country, and more than half of the children enrolled in its program are under age 15.

The irony is that, although news reports paint a bleak picture, independent statistics show that life has become less dangerous for kids in recent years -- with violent crime in particular dropping by 38 percent since 1975. The short spin cycle of cable TV may anoint a new child victim every week, but the actual numbers are far less grim: of the 800,000 kids that go missing each year in America, only 150 cases involve what the Justice Department calls "stereotypical kidnappings," in which a child is taken by a stranger and either held for ransom, abused or killed. Scores more "missing children" are teenage runaways or "throwaways," abandoned by their parents. "Truly, the real news story of the last 10 years has been the astonishing decline in crime," says Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, a New York City child psychologist. "But we are assaulted by a media that is more interested in scaring people, so it is almost impossible for parents to assess the real level of risk. And of course, there is no shortage of people willing to sell products based on those fears."

While the peace of mind such products promise might sound irresistible to some parents, critics warn that a false sense of security may be just as dangerous as a predator, if not more dangerous. "A lot of these devices give parents an unwarranted sense of comfort and control," says Boehm, of National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "I worry that we are getting lazy about making parenting smarter. What parents should want are savvy kids who know about problem solving -- because it's personal responsibility and strength that will help them when the technology doesn't work."

By preaching the virtues of 24-hour surveillance, parents also run the risk of depicting the world as an inherently predatory place. "What is happening is that parents now assume the worst possible outcome, rather than seeing other adults as their allies," says Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at England's University of Kent and the author of "Paranoid Parenting." "You never hear stories about asking neighbors to care for kids or coming together as community. Instead we become insular, privatized communities, and look for technological solutions to what are really social problems." Indeed, while our parents' generation was taught to "honor thy neighbor," the mantra for today's kids is "stranger danger," and the message is clear -- expect the worst of anyone unfamiliar -- anywhere, and at any time.

While acknowledging that their products' popularity relies on the maintenance of a rather grim worldview, manufacturers of kid-tracking technology are adamant that the long-term benefits of such surveillance far outweigh any possible negative psychological side effects for kids. "Of course, we don't want to preach doom and gloom, but the truth is society invites it," says Church, of Teen Arrive Alive. "The alternative is to put blinders on and pretend it will never happen to you. We think of our device like a seat belt -- you don't get into a car expecting to be in an accident, but you're glad you have it on when you do." Indeed, while the statistics show that children's lives have become safer over the past three decades, that shift may validate rather than negate the benefits of stricter parental controls.

"Whether we like it or not," says David Gomillion, the young Florida parent, "these products are a necessary fact of the kind of world we live in. I don't want my children to be victims ... But I will tell them, there are bad guys and good guys out there. And if you don't know what kind they are, well -- assume they're the bad ones."

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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