Does Using GPS to Track Children Provide False Security?


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Missing children fit a different profile than many parents think. Image by taliesin.

Missing children fit a different profile than many parents think. Image by taliesin.

A missing child is every parent’s worst nightmare.  Global positioning services or GPS offer a way to monitor your child’s location, but purchasing expensive cell phones for young children is not very practical.

Now a device marketed for parents of four to eight year olds has hit the stores. The FiLP  can call up to five phone numbers, will receive short text messages, and is water and impact resistant.  A parent can set up “safe zones,” and the device is designed to signal an alert if the child leaves them.

But do these devices create a false sense of security?  Do they lull parents into believing that their children are protected?  Do statistics about missing and abused children strengthen the argument for or against these devices?

Parental Memory Versus GPS Monitoring

Sciences such as epidemiology rely on geography.  Research designed to track human exposure to environmental toxins requires accurate locations.  Dr. Kai Elgethun and colleagues studied parents of 31 children, ages three to five.  The scientists found parents were not very good at reporting where their children were.

Parents who were asked to write down the location of their children in a diary and then had their reports checked against GPS data. The results?

The diary underestimated time the child spent in the home by 17%, while overestimating time spent inside other locations, outside at home, outside in other locations, and time spent in transit.

The study, reported in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, attributed the poor recall of the parents to factors such as “study participant burden” and “respondent error.”

Alternatively, perhaps the parents really were not sure about their children’s whereabouts.

Parental and Child Acceptance of GPS

Children who are tracked by GPS or “mobile phone location disclosure” (MPLD) differ in their acceptance of the technology.  A 2013 study conducted in Singapore by Hee Jhee Jiow found that adolescent children who generally already disclose things to parents were more accepting of being monitored. The author concluded “that a good parent–child relational climate, was crucial in getting children to be more receptive to the employment of MPLD services.”

The parents who used MPLD services reported being no less trusting of their children, however, some children found the devices evidence of parental mistrust.  The researcher admitted the surveillance “limits the opportunities to maintain and display trust.

If parents who opt for GPS monitoring are not trusting of their children, it might be surmised that it is others that they do not trust.  Is fear of abduction behind parental use of the devices?  The study found that parents “may find it a prudent issue” to possess the technology.  The researchers summarized that monitoring may lead to “parents being “more comfortable with their children being away from home.

GPS may save fewer children than building a strong relationship. Image by taliesin.

GPS may save fewer children than building a strong relationship. Image by taliesin.

GPS Tracking and False Security

Parental fear has been associated with limiting the independent mobility of their children, particularly of girls.  A study of the parents of 10 to 12 year old in Perth, Australia by Sarah Foster and colleagues noted:  “For girls, parental fear of strangers was associated with lower odds of independent mobility.”  Similar, but weaker, associations were found for boys.

However – it’s not always stranger-danger parents need to worry about.

The Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that of  828,600 reports of missing children, less than 2% were attributed to stranger abduction.

Around 7% were abducted by family members, and 43% were missing due to a “benign” situation such as overstaying at a friend’s house.  Some were 8% were labeled as “Missing Involuntarily/Lost/Injured,” but the largest group, 357,600 children, or 47% were termed “Runaway/Throwaway” youth.

Teens over fifteen made up 44% of those missing, with the second largest group being those twelve to fourteen years old.

Protecting Kids and Building Relationships

No parent can be blamed for wanting to protect their child.  Yet the numbers suggest that supporting parents who are overwhelmed and teenagers who feel unwanted may make the biggest dent in the number of missing children.

An electronic device may be helpful in tracking little ones, but a close relationship is even better. Starting while kids are young, and building opportunities for trusting relationships during the teen years, should prove more effective than GPS in the long run.

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