Should You Use GPS on Your Child While Traveling?


Are parents using GPS trackers in place of good parenting or is it a smart way to use technology while on vacation? (Photo: HereO watch)

One day, Jakob Lund wandered away from his elementary school in Spokane, Washington and never looked back.

He was 9-years-old.

When he failed to make it home, his panicked mom called 911. It wasn’t the first time Lund — who has Asperger syndrome — had gone missing. He was prone to wandering and getting lost, which is why Stephanie Lund, Jakob’s mom, made her son wear a special high tech wristband to track his every move. While on the line with 911, the dispatcher activated the bracelet to pinpoint his exact location using advanced cellular signal triangulation technology.

Police found Jakob 10 minutes after that first call for help, 15 blocks away from his school. He was safe and soon back in his mother’s arms.

But while parents don’t like to read or even think about their children going missing, it happens. The most recent report by the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that every year 340,500 children get separated from a grown-up for at least an hour. In 2014, there were 466,949 entries for missing children under the age of 18 into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. That doesn’t account for unreported incidents, either. And some families aren’t as lucky. Who can forget the story of Madeleine McCann, who went missing while her family was on vacation in Portugal and has never returned.

That’s why wearable technology to track kids is gaining so much attention and GPS devices for young kids has become a booming industry. Todd Morris, founder of Brickhouse Security, says GPS devices are particularly ideal for international travel. “Traveling with multiple children in strange areas can be a high anxiety situation,” he says. “Sometimes just knowing there’s a safety net can help parents enjoy their vacation a bit more.”

There are nearly 200 GPS personal trackers available for sale on Amazon. Some devices were even founded by parents or relatives of a child who went astray.


Spark Nano 4.0 GPS Tracker. (Photo: Brickhouse Security)

Morris found his way into the geo-tracking business after experiencing his own travel mishap: getting lost for nearly two hours in a dead-end cave during a rock-climbing trip in Thailand.

“I thought I would be a story of a missing tourist that never would be found,” say Morris.

He eventually found his way out. But spooked. Once safely back home, he looked into buying a location device, so others could find him if he ever lost his way again.

But back then, in the early 2000s, GPS devices were bulky, expensive, and geared for law enforcement. Morris, eager for a solution and with a background in software development, yearned to develop something more user-friendly and affordable. He launched Brickhouse Security in 2004 and now sells the Spark Nano 4.0 GPS Tracker ($200), which has a five-to seven-day battery life and doesn’t require activation or a contract. Spark Nano 4.0 GPS Tracker has reported 30 percent sales growth this year.

The toddler tag is another device developed by Morris. An alarm goes off if a child wearing the clip strays more than 30 feet away from the transmitter.

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Brickhouse Security’s toddler tag. (Photo: Brickhouse Security)

Brian Sullivan helped develop Precise Innovation’s kidsport GPS and Caref GPS Phone Watch following a scare during a group family vacation. “One of our daughters wandered off on the beach and was ‘missing’ for an excruciating two and a half hours,” says Sullivan. “We all looked at our phones and thought, ‘If only we could track our child like you can track a missing phone.’”

Russell Thornton lost his 3-year-old son at an amusement park. After a painstaking 45-minutes, his son was found hiding in a play structure. He launched Amber Alert GPS to help other parents avoid the same scenario.

Daniel Ivesha launched the hereO GPS watch ($179) after losing sight of his niece in a crowded park. “Those few minutes felt like an eternity of stress and anguish. The irony of it all is that just a few minutes earlier, I had made a comment to my wife about how it bothered me to see parents walking their children around on a leash!” says Ivesha. Designed for kids 3 and up, the hereO watch sends real-time location to a mobile app. An alert goes off if child leaves a designated safe area or if watch is tampered. Kids can also hit a panic alert to notify family members of location.

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The hereO watch. (Photo: hereO watch)

Most devices use GPS, WiFi, or cell phone signals to gauge location. Some are linked to a smart phone. The price range varies. Devices that require a subscription services through a cellular network are generally more expensive.

For rugged locations, some units are also equipped with GSM technology. Some are waterproof.

The majority of trackers are sold by private companies, many of them, hesitant to provide sales numbers or customer contact information, citing privacy. However, customer reviews do provide general insight into who is purchasing the device and why.

For example, Ann, who lives in upstate New York, purchased the Amber Alert GPS device online for her kindergartener, “I tucked it into her backpack, and then checked it everyday she was on the bus. I got an email when she got to school, and then I could relax!”

But not everyone is a fan.

Renowned psychologist Rebecca Bailey, a therapist to Jaycee Dugard and co-author of Safe Kids, Smart Parents, says while she supports anything that would aid law enforcement in an Amber Alert situation, she would not have purchased a GPS device when raising her five kids. Instead, Bailey prefers parents to focus on overall communication with their children about safety.


Advertisement for Caref GPS shows how the communicative device is designed to operate. (Photo: Precise Innovation)

When it comes to device performance, there are also conflicting reports on overall effectiveness.

A review published by Consumer Reports in 2014 tested and compared three popular trackers for kids: Amber Alert GPS, Filip, and PocketFinder Personal GPS. The article pointed out some inconsistencies with overall performance. For example, occasional lag time in displaying the exact location of the tracker.

Because of this, child safety experts encourage parents to never be 100 percent reliant on technology, “The reality is technology sometimes doesn’t work,” says Nancy McBride, child safety spokesperson and executive director for the Florida Regional Office of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “We are aware of the technology but don’t endorse or recommend products. I think that if you are going to use it, it should be part of your overall child safety tool kit. You can’t replace the supervision of your kids.”

And while there are many documented cases of law enforcement pinging cell phones to help located a missing person or track criminals, there is no comprehensive data, at least on a national level, on GPS trackers.

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Screenshot of a customer using the Amber Alert GPS phone app to track family members at Macarana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Star markers indicate likely location of each registered user. (Photo: Amber Alert GPS)

However, Project Lifesaver, a nonprofit group that supports law enforcement-backed personal locator units for at-risk children, as well as adults prone to potentially life-threatening wandering, does have some strong statistics. The organization reports 3,000 successful rescues in the past 16 years. In those cases, a trained emergency team responded to the wanderer’s area.

Many times the lost person is an adult with Alzheimer’s or dementia or a child suffering from a developmental disorder like autism.

For example, an elderly man with Alzheimer’s wandered away from his home in Virgina last month. His wife called the police to report him missing. The officer deployed his Project Lifesaver receiver and shortly after acquiring the signal the elderly gentlemen was found. He was returned to his family safe and unharmed.

As for the majority of kid-oriented GPS trackers, marketers are focusing more on how it helps parents best cope with the what-ifs than the life saving potential of these devices.

“While we haven’t had any “this device saved my child’s life” stories, we get emails almost daily from families who get so much peace of mind knowing they can simply look at their phone and know where their child is,” says Sullivan from Precise Innovation.

So when should parents use these devices — if at all?

“Best practices in protection are always a layered approach. When used in conjunction with common sense and good parenting skills this type of extra equipment is always advantageous. I think the user must always remember that this type of equipment is not a substitute in proper supervision and monitoring of your child,” says Gary Stewart Miville, regional vice president of USentra/ RIBI Security, a security consulting firm.

For Ann, the mother who bought one to track her young daughter, she believes it comes down to personal preference. “I am not a ‘helicopter’ parent and my daughter is a great kid. But it is scary letting a young child get on a bus and hoping they get to where you think they will be,” she says. “Knowing in near-real time that she is where I think she is was comforting and allowed me to focus on what I needed to do.”

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