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Best ways to keep tabs on kids without giving them a smartphone


Jennifer Jolly, Special for USA Today
Published 2:54 p.m. ET June 13, 2018 | Updated 3:21 p.m. ET June 13, 2018


What is the best way to keep a watchful eye on youngsters who aren’t quite old enough to own a smartphone? There are devices for those in-between years that aim to connect us with kids without pushing a preteen into adulthood with a smartphone.

Let’s face it parents, most of us lose our kids at least once or twice while they’re growing up.

Sometimes they just get a little too good at hide-and-seek, like my then-four-year-old daughter did for a few heart-stopping moments inside a department store several years ago. 

Apps on smartphones like Life360 and even Find My Friends work great to help track teens and older kids mature enough to manage the responsibility of owning a smartphone.

But what about for younger ones? Parents are becoming increasingly savvy to the downside of smartphones, such as overuse and access to inappropriate content. Once a kid has a smartphone, it’s hard to take it back.

More: Exclusive: Nearly half of parents worry their child is addicted to mobile devices

More: Addicted to your smartphone? Here’s how to kick the habit

There are a handful of devices for those in-between years that aim to connect us with kids without pushing a preteen into adulthood with a smartphone.

John Renaldi, a former Motorola Mobility vice president, parlayed his own experience losing sight of his then-six-year old into co-founding Jiobit. The heavily encrypted device (starting at $99, plus $9.99 monthly data fee) lets you follow your child’s movements on a smartphone app.

The sugar-packet sized tracker slips into a pocket, clips onto a waistband or shoelace, pairs with an app on your smartphone and can track your kids in real time. It uses “progressive beaconing,” which is a combination of Wi-Fi, cell networks, GPS and Bluetooth. It’s water-proof and discrete, with the idea that your youngster will forget they’re even wearing it. Meanwhile, the tiny gadget delivers real-time location info for a full week on a single charge.

To periodically check-in on your child’s whereabouts, it’s as simple as opening the app. But you can also set up location alerts to tell you when the device crosses certain map boundaries. You can set those alerts for common places and you’ll get a buzz when your son or daughter leaves the house and then again when they arrive at a friend’s place, the library, swimming pool, Grandma’s house, or anywhere else.

Given a rash of headlines about data breaches, Jiobit recently doubled-down on keeping customers’ personal data secure. 

“We encrypt all of the tracking data on both ends — the device and the app — at rest and at transit, so that it can’t be snooped-on by anyone else,” Jiobit’s chief marketing officer and mom of four, Lindsay Slutzky, said.

The tracker also has a tamper resistant security chip, and your child’s location data is never sold or viewed by anyone but you or people you give permission to view it through your account, she says.

High-tech walkie talkie

Checking the up-to-the-second location of your child is a great way to gain some peace of mind, but when you want to hear their voice you’re going to need something a bit different. Relay (starting at $99, plus $6.99 monthly data charge) is a Post-It note-size, screen-free cell phone alternative that puts you in direct contact with your child, with the tap of your smartphone screen.

Think of Relay kind of like a walkie talkie, only smarter. You can connect to your child’s Relay whenever you want from either your smartphone or from another Relay device, and they can contact you by pressing the large button in the middle of the gadget. But unlike a walkie talkie, Relay uses 4G LTE connectivity to keep you in touch with your youngster.

The kids we tested out the trackers with definitely love the walkie-talkie function — so much so that you have to be careful they don’t run down the battery, or your patience, using it non-stop. Similar to Jiobit, you can use an app on your smartphone to see their location on a map, and it’s great to tap the center of the gadget and tell them it’s time to come home. Right now, there’s no way to clip the device onto your child, you have to just slip it into a pocket or pouch, but Relay says they’ll have solutions to that soon.

Also like Jiobit, Relay is the result of experts in the mobility space who also happen to be parents.

“We set out to make something fun for kids,” says Raleigh-based Relay senior vice president Jon Schniepp, father of two sons, ages three and six. “When we tried all the other trackers with our own kids we realized that eventually the novelty wears off and they don’t want to have anything to do with it.”

If neither the Jiobit nor the Relay are striking your fancy, there are a couple wrist-worn watch-like options that we did not go hands-on with extensively for this review.

One we tried when it first launched was the HereO kids watch ($199, plus $4.95 monthly data charge after the first six months). It serves a similar purpose as the Jiobit, with a built-in GPS tracker that sends location info right to your phone, and with its bright colors and fun design it’s probably something your kid will love to show off.

For almost-teens, the back-to-basics Nokia 3310 ($59.99) is a great almost-smartphone with a battery that lasts up to 27 days on a single charge and a durable design that won’t buckle under the pressure. If it does meet with catastrophe, its price won’t break your bank either.

None of these are an instant “easy button” for being a parent, but they sure can help for peace of mind. “Tracking technology is no substitute for good parenting,” adds Slutzky. “It’s an extra tool — a proactive way to help keep them safer in our increasingly connected world.”  

Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech contributor and host of USA TODAY’s digital video show TECH NOW. Email her at jj@techish.com. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferJolly.

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