When pint-sized ghouls and princesses hit the streets this Halloween in search of the house with full-sized candy bars, many will be watched by an unseen presence. Trailing children's every move, the observer will track them through the neighborhood, searching for any hint a child has strayed outside of approved safe zones.
Fortunately, the vast majority of those stalkers will be those children's parents on their smartphones.
GPS technology, widely used to provide motorists with directions, is now being used to track the movements of entire families.
Snap Secure, a smartphone security app created by Princeton, N.J.-based cloud service applications company Snap My Life, already functioned to control who children talk to by phone, text with and what they browse online.
The app, which comes with a $5.99-per-month subscription, is one of dozens of products developed by tech companies specifically for parents to monitor children's locations. Snap Secure has rolled out new features just in time for Halloween that takes the surveillance up a notch by allowing parents to set perimeters on a GPS-enabled map that limits where a child is permitted to travel. If a kid steps outside of the marked area, parents receive a notification and can check the map to see just how far the child has strayed.
The company unveiled its Geo-fence this month specifically for parents ready to let their children go trick-or-treating without them for the first time, but unwilling to give them complete freedom.
Snap My Life president and CEO Jiren Parikh admitted the trend of monitoring children's activities is "kind of snooping," particularly with older children, but he said what's lost in terms of privacy is miniscule compared to what's gained in terms of safety.
"I've got three kids who all want expensive smartphones. I told them if you want service and want data plans, then you have to have the software. Tough luck," he said.
While there aren't any official numbers regarding the number of companies that develop technologies to track children, there's no doubt it's a growing field, said Kay Persing, safety specialist for the national child safety organization Guard-A-Kid.
Ms. Persing, who is based out of McDonald, said her organization sells $39 Child Location Devices shaped like toys to supplement child safety training. If a child is more than 30 feet away, parents receive a notification on a transmitter and can push a button to sound an alarm on the child's device. Child ID kits are provided for free during community events and school presentations.
The technology doesn't monitor every step a child makes, but it can reassure parents that they're never too far away.
"More and more with education, parents are becoming aware of safety devices and they're definitely a big help," Ms. Persing said. "It gives parents a peace of mind knowing where their child is at all times and that they can locate them should they be where they're not supposed to be."
If Guard-A-Kid transmitters are equivalent to liability auto insurance, devices from the Amber Alert GPS company are full coverage.
The South Jordan, Utah-based company was founded in 2007 by Russell Thornton after his son was lost at a family fun center for 45 minutes. The Amber Alert GPS V3 gives children brightly colored cell-phonelike devices with SOS Buttons that send text alerts to up to 10 individuals in the event of an emergency.
The devices link to software in parents' smartphones that features a GPS-enabled tracking portal and allows parents to establish safe zones in their neighborhoods, at school or any place a parent wants to know the child is entering or exiting.
The Predator Alert feature notifies parents if a child comes within 500 feet of a registered sex offender's residence and is updated every 24 hours. The device is $199 with a one-year contract with service plans allowing for location from smartphone and home computers ranging between $14.99 per month and $24.99 per month.
Despite the buffet of features that give parents more information than they would have being directly by their child's side, today's parents are looking for even higher levels of surveillance, according to Julia Howard, Amber Alert GPS vice president of operations.
"Every week I get a call from a parent saying, 'Can I put a chip in my kid?' I have to tell them that technology doesn't exist," she said.
That idea may seem extreme to some, but the urge is not all that uncommon during the age of the so-called helicopter parent who hovers over all aspects of their child's life, said Barbara Gaines, director of trauma and injury prevention at UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.
"Today, parents are uncomfortable when they don't know exactly where their children are. In the past, kids would often walk to school without parents; they would walk with a group. It's rare now for a child to do that."
She said tracking devices may make parents feel more in control of what happens to children when they're out of sight, but the devices neglect to address dangers more commonly associated with traveling alone on Halloween or any other day.
The Children's Injury Prevention department released a list of safety tips that includes making sure children wear bright colors or use reflective tape, wear nontoxic paints instead of plastic masks, carry flashlights and exercise caution when crossing streets.
Dr. Gaines said children should also always be supervised by an adult, whether they're being electronically monitored or not. "In some ways, [the devices] provide a false sense of security that it's doing everything that having a parent with a child can do, and it's not quite the same," she said.
Mr. Parikh said the app won't guarantee 100 percent safety but is definitely a powerful tool in the arsenal parents keep to protect loved ones.
"Anything can give a false sense of security. A seat belt can give a false sense of security, but that doesn't make it safe to drive 200 miles an hour down the highway with a beer in hand," he said.
"This simple thing, just knowing where your kids are at all times, gives parents peace of mind."
Deborah M. Todd: email@example.com or 412-263-1652.