More parents using GPS to track children but experts warn there could be consequences

A Brisbane mum who developed a GPS tracking watch for children says sales have spiked over the past three years with more parents looking for ways to ensure their child is safe.

Karen Cantwell first developed TicTocTrack five years ago when her own child started going to school, finding software like it was largely unavailable at the time.

“When we launched in 2014, we were one of two companies globally that had this type of solution on the market — it was fairly untapped,” she said.

“But as technology’s improved and I think as people have a greater awareness about these types of devices, just in the last three years alone we’ve seen a 600 per cent increase in sales of our product.

“I also feel there is a greater awareness of some of the dangers out there so people are looking for a solution. It’s a way for parents to have some peace of mind, and allow greater independence and flexibility with their children.”

Today, there are several GPS watches and tracking options on the market, and many parents also use smart phones to keep an eye on their children.

Recent research by the Royal Children’s Hospital found one in five children who travel to school by themselves, is monitored by their parents through some form of tracking device.

The study also found the concept was a point of tension in many homes, with one in three children not wanting it, and one in five parents reporting their partner disagreed about doing it.

Is tracking your child a good idea?

Ms Cantwell said children between the ages of five and 12 were the most common users of the watch, but she had also developed mobile software for older children.

“It allows the child to make a phone call as they would from a mobile to linked numbers, but only the number the parent approves and through the app the parent can see where the child is,” she said.

“The child is able to send an SOS alert in case they need help or assistance or they feel a little uncomfortable in a situation, and it also gives you an exact location of where they are, and alerts if they leave safe areas that you’ve set up.

“A lot of the passive apps on the market will just show you the location of the phone or person, rather than more proactive monitoring and alerts.

“It’s been particularly useful in the autism community where a child might be prone to running.”

Brisbane mother Christina Penrose said she purchased the watches for her two sons when they started attending different schools.

“We really wanted to be able to communicate with them, but we didn’t want to have the phone scenario where they have that extra screen time, the possibility of cyber bullying and all that,” she said.

Her sons also have after school jobs and activities, and 12-year-old Josh Penrose said he liked the idea of not having to look after a mobile phone.

“I think the watch is great … with phones when you’re playing soccer you have to put them down, but with the watches you don’t have to remove them at all,” he said.

‘If it saves one life then it’s worth it’: police

Queensland police figures show nearly 16,000 children between the ages of five and 16 have been reported missing since 2016, and Detective Senior Sergeant Damien Powell said numbers had slightly increased.

“Mainly due to the Tiahleigh Palmer incident, and vigilance in the community, which is a good thing,” Detective Senior Sergeant Powell said.

Most children are found within the first 24 hours of being reported missing, and Detective Senior Sergeant Powell said the reasons for their disappearance varied.

For children under the age of 12, he said the usual triggers were tantrums, where they chose to run away from home, or forgetfulness.

“Twelve to 18 — there’s a whole range of reasons, including mental health, such as ADD, ADHD, autism and Asperger’s, which can manifest itself in behavioural issues and also just forgetfulness, not being where they want to be, some rebellion,” he said.

“Girls outnumber boys in one age group and one age group only, and that’s the 14-16 year age … I can only put this down to a protective nature as parents and carers of the girls and the girls maturing faster than boys … not getting what they want, disagreements with their friends, their family and with their carers.

“So going missing can often be a reaction to their environment.”

He said digital tracking may not be the answer for many scenarios police face daily.

“Anything the parent wishes to do that is helpful to them, gives them peace of mind, then we encourage it, but there is a reluctance within the community for this electronic tracking, and privacy becomes a problem,” he said.

“As a general message, if anyone has concerns about the safety or welfare of someone, speak to your local police and we can make an informed decision from the information received and from our inquiries to make sure they’re safe and well.

“We would far rather look into a missing person’s report than having someone wondering if they should have done something.”

Parents need to have the conversation with their child first

QUT Professor in Early Childhood and Inclusive Education Susan Danby said the effect of digitally tracking a child was still an under-researched area.

“We know a little bit about helicopter parenting … there can be real issues with it particularly if children don’t know about it, or don’t agree to what’s happening … that can create tensions within the family,” she said.

“We live in a digital world. I remember when my child was going to school … I was torn, between this feeling of her wanting to be independent, at the same time, I was so worried about her getting home safely.

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