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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

These days, technology is ever present in the lives of children. Many toddlers are as likely to amuse themselves with a touch screen as a set of blocks. Text messaging, mobile phones and video games are a way of life for a lot of tweens and teens.

The good news for parents is there's also new technology to help them keep tabs on their offspring, as NPR's Steve Henn reports.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Giancarlo Daniele is a 22-year-old Stanford grad and he's already starting a business. It's called Drive Pulse. He makes this little black dongle that plugs into basically any modern car. It's not really much bigger than a flash drive for a computer.

GIANCARLO DANIELE: Yeah, not a lot. People are generally surprised when they see it.

HENN: Every modern car has something called an onboard diagnostic port.

DANIELE: It turns out that that port is incredibly powerful; connects to your car's brain, let's call it.

HENN: Giancarlo Daniele's gadget also has GPS to track location and it connects to the Net. Then it feeds all this information to an app that parents can use to keep tabs on their teens. He snapped one into my car and we set it up to send notifications to my mobile phone when certain things happened in the car.

Slammed on the brakes, I want that on. I definitely want to know if my kid is going more than 80 because they're grounded. Floored acceleration - wow. Car is idling - huh, that's an interesting one. Why did you include that?

DANIELE: Polluting the atmosphere - basically, like, idling is a bad thing.

HENN: So if you live in a cold climate and your kid is making out somewhere you'll know.

(LAUGHTER)

DANIELE: Yeah, you'll know. Another feature that is very possible and we are so close to implementing is Geofencing. So right now, you're able to - on this map that we're looking at - put down three fingers over, say, kid's significant others house, I don't know, or bad neighborhood. Put three fingers on the map and then if the car enters that neighborhood your phone gets a push notification.

HENN: So if my daughter were dating someone I really don't like, I could Geofence this person's house?

DANIELE: You could.

(LAUGHTER)

HENN: Not surprisingly, lots of kids think that's...

KATE REARDON: Well, creepy.

HENN: That's Kate Reardon.

REARDON: That was really, really creepy.

HENN: For the record, Kate Reardon is not my daughter.

REARDON: I'm 20 years old. I'm a junior at Kenyon College.

HENN: But over the summer Kate Reardon's mom brought home one of these Drive Pulse dongles to test. Her mom says, really, she was really just interested in helping Kate's little brother Jack, who just got a license. She wanted him to practice and get better. She wanted this data and she got the dongle after Jack got in an accident.

But Kate and her brothers just couldn't get past the idea that their mom would be tracking them everywhere.

REARDON: I actually thought that that was a really weird thing to want put in a car. It just makes this antagonistic relationship between, you know, your parents and you. And it's really not probably super-healthy for anyone. It reduces communication to someone stalking the other and I don't think anybody likes that.

(LAUGHTER)

HENN: Kate Reardon's mom eventually decided not to use this kind of monitoring device.

DR. FLAURA WINSTON: I think one of the really important things is what can a parent do today without monitoring, 'cause there is a lot that they can do, you know.

HENN: Dr. Flaura Winston studies injury prevention and teen driving at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

WINSTON: I just don't want parents to think they have to go out and by these devices when, in fact, there's a lot they can do even without them.

HENN: Now, Dr. Winston understands why parents are attracted to technology like this. Auto accidents are the leading cause of death among teenagers in this country. But she says being directly involved in teaching a kid to drive while nurturing a good relationship might just be the best thing a parent can do to keep a new driver safe.

WINSTON: Teens who say their parents not only set rules and monitor their driving, but are also very supportive, are half as likely to be in a crash, 71 percent less likely to drive intoxicated, than teens with uninvolved parents. They are also 30 percent less likely to use cell phones.

HENN: And she says, actually, not all apps like this are going to be bad. If an app encourages a teen to drive more carefully, rewards them for doing a good job or sparks family conversation if a kid's driving needs some work, it can be a really good thing.

WINSTON: I absolutely do think that monitoring technology can be helpful, if it's used in the right way.

HENN: Dr. Winston says it can play a positive role in helping a young driver safely progress toward independence. But if, as a parent, you're tempted to use technology to try and keep tabs on a wild child, be careful. You could just end up starting more fights and creating more problems than you solve.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.

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