Wed, Dec 07, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Tracking by tagging our children

While the US has been at it for years, are UK parents ready to use satellite technology to keep tabs on their children?

By Lucy Atkins  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

This week a firm called Teddyfone launched a teddy-bear- shaped mobile phone aimed at four-to-eight-year-olds, just in time for Christmas.

At the same time, it launched the i-Kids satellite mobile phone, which looks a bit like a spaceman and incorporates the latest global positioning satellite (GPS) technology, allowing you to track your child's movements through a secure website -- or from your own mobile phone -- to a radius of 20m to 50m.

These are just two new additions to the latest parenting growth industry: a multimillion-dollar market in new and increasingly flashy "child-tracking" devices.

Using fast-developing mobile phone, wireless, radio, microchip and GPS technology, these new inventions will enable us to keep tabs on our children wherever they are, night or day.

In the UK, for example, child-tracking is currently focused on mobiles. Earlier this year Mymo, the first mobile phone aimed at very young kids, was taken off the market after William Stewart, the chairman of the UK Health Protection Agency, warned that children under eight could absorb too much radiation from mobile phones.

Despite such warnings, however, in March it was reported that the average age of British children owning their first mobile phone had fallen from 12 to eight in only four years, and that more than a million children aged five to nine had a mobile. Mymo was repackaged and relaunched as the Owl phone (an "emergency phone" for children), and if industry predictions are right, another half a million children should be signed up to mobile devices by 2007.

But why? Certainly, around Christmas parents are more likely to cave in to whining requests for a new Baby Annabel, a Tamagotchi or a cuddly animal-shaped mobile phone. But there's more to it than naked materialism. The trend seems to be more about protection than possession: We believe these devices will help to keep our children safe in what is, we perceive, an increasingly scary, predatory world.

And we're prepared to pay.

The i-Kids phone allows parents to select a "Safety Zone Alert" -- an area on the map surrounding the place where your child is meant to be. You are then alerted by text if the phone leaves the zone.

"The world is a more dangerous place than it used to be," says Paul Liesching, managing director of Teddyfone, "and these devices give children more freedom; maybe they'll be able to play in the park, like they used to."

KidsOK, the first mobile child-tracking service to hit the high street, recently became available in shops including Boots, BHS and Toys R Us. To track your child using the KidsOK package, you simply "ping" his/her phone -- it will work on any handset -- by sending a two-word text to KidsOK. You wait a few seconds and a map "pings" back to your mobile showing the location of your child's handset.

The technology is relatively straightforward. When a mobile is on, every minute or so the handset communicates with the network operator to check it has reception and to find the nearest mast. This means operators always know, within a certain radius, where any handset is.

Apart from the obvious fact that your child's handset could be lying in the mud, may have run out of power or been stolen (or removed), there are limitations to current phone-tracking technology: GPS won't work if the phone is in a building or underground, and clouds and trees can also interfere. While standard "cell technology" on mobile phones works anywhere there are masts, it is less accurate than GPS.

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