Radioactive: Toddler telephony taps parental paranoia

But will it work?

But will it work?

Always on the lookout for new opportunities, mobile operators see children as a segment waiting to be exploited - if they can convince parents mobiles are useful tracking devices. Futurity Media's Anthony Plewes examines the pitch for kids' mobiles.

Fashionable brands are all consuming in the peer-pressure driven children's mobile market but parents still hold the purse strings. Canny operators are therefore aiming much of their marketing effort at them and one of their key targets is parental paranoia. This modern malaise has infected parents everywhere. Instead of recognising that streets have become safer, parents have a growing fear of abduction or accidents befalling their children.

The mobile phone industry is tapping into this fear through mobile services which include tracking. Through GPS devices, parents are able to check up on their children's location on their PC or phone. Even family media giant Disney has got in on the act. Its MVNO service, which was finally launched in April after being touted for some time, is centred on features for the paranoid parent including tracking and call control.

UK company Communc8 launched one of the most notorious and short-lived mobile tracking services for children back in 2004. The phone, called MyMo, was targeted at four- to eight-year-olds and included a tracking device. Instead of a normal keypad it had three buttons which the child could use to dial five pre-programmed numbers.

But before the market appetite for toddler telephony could be tested, the company withdrew the phones in reaction to research from the National Radiological Protection Board. The government advisory body basically said mobile phones should not be given to children under eight-years-old. Although this was not that much different to the advice it gave in 2000, Communic8 decided to withdraw the MyMo. It has since been resurrected as a safety device for the elderly with similar tracking and limited dialling capabilities.

This obsession with tracking fits in well with the surveillance society that the UK is turning into. However, mobile operators are no doubt cock-a-hoop about finding a location-based application that somebody appears to want - even if it is not the actual carrier of the phone.

Unfortunately, for the paranoid parent, mobile phone tracking is nearly as flawed as location-based marketing. Kids who don't want to be tracked by their parents will simply leave their phone at home or turn it off. The parent will end up tracking the phone rather than the child which could give them a false sense of security.

Parents are not the only parties tracking kids. A school in Buffalo, New York, attracted attention in 2003 by using RFID tags embedded in their school identity cards to keep track of their pupils. Readers in the school gates and on the buses allowed them to automate class registers and track when children arrived and left. RFID-based identity systems are more commonly used in the US military or prisons but this has not stopped other schools following suit, both in the US and worldwide.

Quite apart from what our surveillance of children says about our society, it could actually do more harm than good. Systems such as GPS tracking and RFID are all about automating processes. They allow businesses to keep track of their vans or goods so they go to the right places and do the right jobs. If there is a problem with the system then the worst thing that can happen is the engineer is sent to the wrong location.

Automated parenting is a whole different ball game. If parents are lulled into a false sense of security and therefore skimp on their duty of care, then their kids could really end up in trouble.

Anthony Plewes is a freelance journalist and director of Futurity Media


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