Parents Keep Track of Kids Via Cell Phones

As kids head off to camp and weekend trips this summer, many parents will be tracking them with GPS-enabled cell phones for kids younger than 12. Technology writer Mario Armstrong discusses technology for kids with John Ydstie.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

We've been hearing an awful a lot about the iPhone during the past couple of weeks. Today, for our Monday focus on technology, we're going to talk about a simpler kind of phone, phones for kids under the age of 12. Well, you'd think these phones would be simpler because they're for kids but they're actually anything but toys. Many kids' phones now have GPS technology, which allows parents to track their kids when they go off to summer camp or weekends with grandma.

We're joined by our technology writer, Mario Armstrong, a MORNING EDITION regular. Welcome, Mario.

MARIO ARMSTRONG: Welcome. Thank you for having me, John. My pleasure.

YDSTIE: We might think that kids are interested in cell phones that are bright and colorful, like one of the ones that you've brought with us here, a little green one that looks...

ARMSTRONG: Sure, yeah.

YDSTIE: Kind of like a critter of something.

ARMSTRONG: Like a little critter of some sort with two little ears almost, it looks like.

YDSTIE: Yeah. But I understand the kids actually didn't take to that phone.

ARMSTRONG: This was amazing to me. This is - it's a bright green neon phone. There are only four buttons, as you can see here, which means a parent can program those buttons, so there's no dial pad, so you don't have to worry about a kid calling all over the place. But it did - I guess the kids just thought it was too cheesy for them. It has two antennas. One was for cellular calls. The other antenna on the other side here is for the GPS, so that you could actually locate. And the industry likes to word locate. They don't like the word tracking. But essentially that's you're doing.

YDSTIE: Spying on.

ARMSTRONG: Essentially that's the way it is. You are tracking.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. So what happened? Companies decide to make phones that were just normal phones instead?

ARMSTRONG: Yes. So apparently kids said, hey, no. We don't want, you know, kid looking technology. We want what adults have, right? So...

YDSTIE: And that's why you've got here.

ARMSTRONG: So I have this replacement of that older phone, which was called the Migo. This is now the LG 3450, which replaces that. Doesn't that look much like a regular standard cell phone?

YDSTIE: Yeah. Like a regular cell phone. It's got a nice bright blue cover on it. That's about the only difference. But even adults have covers like that on their cell phones.

ARMSTRONG: That's true. It's nice and small, easy for them to carry.

YDSTIE: Yeah.

ARMSTRONG: Has a full functioning keypad, though; it's not parent-programmable numbers. So that's a little bit different. And it gives the kids a little bit more flexibility. So we're seeing this shift of parents giving kids technology but then kids turning it down, saying, we don't want the junk. We want the good stuff.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. Technology for young kids has really become ubiquitous now, not just cell phones. It seems that every major toy company has designed a laptop for kids. And you've brought one along.

ARMSTRONG: Yes, I brought this Genius Notebook, is what it's called. And so they have all different flavors and varieties of laptops now, everything that has a Batman theme to a Barbie theme. This is really more for the younger age. You can see it's educationally based.

(Soundbite of Genius Notebook)

ARMSTRONG: If I turn it on here...

(Soundbite of Genius Notebook)

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi there.

Unidentified Woman #2: Select an activity.

YDSTIE: Well, hi there.

And you can see it's kind of monochrome with the screen in the middle. So this is not like your average laptop where it takes the full 15 inches. This is about a 10-inch screen-size laptop here.

(Soundbite of Genius Notebook)

YDSTIE: But there's just a tiny screen that's about one and a half by four, something like that in the middle.

ARMSTRONG: Four inches, yeah, it's all monochrome. No color. It does have a mouse. So this is nice because kids get to start to learn the - how to move around on a computer. But this is not like running Windows or Mac.

YDSTIE: Right. And what can little kid do on this?

ARMSTRONG: So you can do all types of educational games. You can do spelling. You can do - learn different languages like Spanish. You can do math. You can do basic educational things. But you know, for my kid, he got bored with this. And I showed this to him at the age of about two and half, three years old. And so he wanted to play on mommy and daddy's real laptop, oddly enough. So we just made that move. We've actually made that transition and purchased a laptop for my five-year-old son.

YDSTIE: So you wouldn't recommend something like this?

ARMSTRONG: I think, again, that you need to know where your kids are and where their capabilities can be.

YDSTIE: Right.

ARMSTRONG: I think this has a purpose. And I think it - for price, number one, a regular laptop is going to cost you several hundred. This is under 100. So there is definitely a price factor. But if you really want to move beyond just educational games and toys, all the things that you can do on a regular computer, it's time to move them to a laptop. I mean, case in point; I know of second and third graders who are now delivering presentations in their class using PowerPoint. And I don't want my kid to behind - be behind the curve when it comes the time for him to do his PowerPoint presentation.

YDSTIE: Well, that's impressive, or scary, or both. Right?

ARMSTRONG: A little of both.

YDSTIE: Technology writer Mario Armstrong, thanks for coming in.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you for having me.

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