05 October 2009

Latest in child-locating devices

There are technological tools that give parents some peace of mind, from clip-on alarms to GPS locators that can be dropped in a backpack or stuffed in a teddy bear.

With a computer or cell phone and an electronic tracking device, you can locate a missing pet, follow the path of a stolen car, find a skier buried in an avalanche and rescue a hiker lost in the woods.

So what about a child snatched by a stranger? Thousands of children are reported missing each year. The vast majority are runaways, followed by parental abductions, and kidnapping by strangers – many of who come home fairly quickly, often victims of sexual abuse.

Technological tools
There are technological tools that give parents some peace of mind, from clip-on alarms to GPS locators that can be dropped in a backpack or stuffed in a teddy bear, but experts caution that the gadgets are not without their limitations and can even raise safety concerns of their own.

"Tracking devices can be useful to parents," said Allen. "Our concern is that they will be viewed as more than they are."

Child-tracking myths
Myths about successful child-tracking items include implantable GPS-enabled microchips, but industry experts say they do not exist on the market. And there are concerns, such as whether electronically tethering children makes them anxious for their safety or makes parents lazy.

Companies that sell locators say they do not substitute for keeping an eye on your children and they do not prevent kidnappings or guarantee recovery after an abduction. "This is not tag and release," said Todd Morris, CEO of BrickHouse Security, which makes the BrickHouse Child Locator and distributes many other brands. "But even the best parent, with the best intentions, can find it hard to keep track of their kids all the time."

The BrickHouse unit is among a number of gadgets that beep, vibrate or light up to help guide a parent toward a missing child. These gadgets are in two parts, with the main device held by the parent and a small alarm attached to the child, usually on a piece of clothing.

When a child is out of sight, the parent presses his device to activate the child's alarm. The gadgets usually work up to about 180m.

Some of these devices have monitors allowing parents to set parameters for how far their children can roam before an alarm goes off. Others have panic buttons the child can press if he feels in danger. Few have GPS technology.

Other gadgets on the market use GPS technology, which rely on satellite signals, that allow parents using a Web browser to monitor the location of an enabled device, often a cell phone, within 45-90m.

But even the manufacturers are quick to recognise the limitations of their devices. Batteries only last so long, prices can reach hundreds of dollars, weather can interfere with GPS signals and some devices may be tricky to use.

"What you see on the market is that there are various products at every level," said Barry Wallace, chief executive of Intelent Technologies, Inc., which makes the Giggle Bug, a $20 clip-on alarm that looks like a ladybug. "But what people don't understand is it is not one-size-fits-all."

A concern with some locators that are attached to a child or sewn into his clothing is danger to the child should an abductor try to pull it off.

"We also don't want children's first reaction to kidnapping situations be, 'How do I activate this thing?' That's valuable seconds not trying to get away," Allen said.

How device affects child
Though the trackers are not illegal, some parents are concerned about what effects these surveillance devices could have on a child's sense of independence or level of paranoia. Psychologists identify some potential risks. "I think my concern would be more the perceived lack of trust ... if you're telling them you can't regulate yourself to make safe decisions of where you're going," said Stuart Lustig, a professor of child psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

But he said some parents who take comfort in the tool could project an air of calm on the child.

Nesbitt said the device makes him feel like he is making an extra effort to keep his children safe. "You hope that it never happens to you, but it could," he said. "I don't want to be that guy who says, 'If I only would've."' – (Brooke Donald/Sapa, October 2009)

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