CHICAGO – In this case, it isn't Big Brother who's watching — it's Big Mother (or Father). Increasingly, parents are using high-tech methods to track everything from where their children are and how far they are driving to what they buy, what they eat and whether they've shown up for class.
Often, the gadget involved is a simple cell phone that transmits location data. The details get delivered by e-mail, cell phone text message or the Web.
Other times, the tech tool is a debit-like card used at a school lunch counter, or a device that lets parents know not only how far and fast the car is going, but also whether their child has been braking too hard or making jackrabbit starts.
Ted Schmidt, a father in suburban Burr Ridge, Ill., uses the cell phone method to track his four children, including two in college.
"Here's the story," Schmidt told them when he decided to begin tracking them about a year ago. "24/7, I can tell where your phone is, what speed it's going.... So (even) days later, I can look and see that 'Oh my gosh, you were going 80 miles an hour on the Interstate at 2 o'clock in the morning.'"
It might sound invasive, but Schmidt is convinced it's keeping his kids safer — partly because they know they're being watched.
His 15-year-old son, Noah, who's been caught a few places he wasn't supposed to be, isn't nearly as pleased.
"It's annoying," the high school sophomore complains. "It gives the parents too much control."
The Schmidts' older daughters are, however, more accepting. Ciarra Schmidt, a New York University (search) freshman, likes to know her parents could find her in an emergency.
"You never know what could happen," the 18-year-old says. "It's a nice kind of security blanket."
Other devices that track on-the-go kids include the Wherifone, a specialized locator phone that uses the Global Positioning System (search), and the CarChip, a device about the size of two nine-volt batteries stacked together that, installed in a vehicle, monitors speed, distance and driving habits.
Interest in the United States is growing quickly, as it already has in other countries — Canada and the United Kingdom included. Teen Arrive Alive, which began offering its tracking service in May 2004, now has subscribers in every state and is particularly popular in the South and the East, company officials say.
These days, it's just one way technology is helping parents monitor their kids.
Georgia-based Mealpay.com began two years ago, for instance, as a way for parents to electronically prepay school lunches. Now — at the request of some parents — the service allows them to monitor what kids order in the cafeteria.
Meanwhile, Boston-based MobileLime allows teens to use a cell phone to buy items at fast-food restaurants, grocery stores and other participating retailers. The cell phone is linked to a credit or prepaid card, so parents can check.
Then there's "alerts" from U.K.-based Langtree SkillsCenter Ltd. Parents are notified by text message, e-mail or phone whether a student has shown up for class and can get progress reports (good and bad) on schoolwork. Just starting up, the company has signed about 10 U.K. schools so far and is expanding to the United States.
Parenting experts have mixed views on such techniques.
In general, monitoring a child — knowing where they're going, who they're hanging out with — is a good thing, says Christy Buchanan, an associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. She also notes that some teens are more trustworthy and less likely to take risks than others.
"But parents have to strike some balance between knowing what their kids are up to without the adolescent feeling like they're having their every move controlled," says Buchanan, who is involved in a multiyear study of teens and parents. "Parents shouldn't fool themselves into thinking that they can keep their kids from making mistakes, which is part of growing up and learning."
Sometimes, young people find ways around technological monitoring. Buchanan knows students who simply leave their GPS-enabled cell phones under their dorm room beds or turn them off for extended periods of time.
Kate Kelly, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Parenting a Teenager," doesn't blame them.
"Normal spouses don't hire private detectives to track the whereabouts of their mates, and parents who have done their jobs in establishing good relationships with their teens shouldn't be using extraordinary high-tech devices to follow their teens," Kelly says. "You've got to create a relationship built on trust, not fear."
Some manufacturers of tracking products see the point — to a point.
"It certainly is a fine line between care and overprotection — and parents face this dilemma all the time," says Gavin Biggs, an "alerts" spokesman. "But is there any other time where your child is out of your control for seven, eight hours a day, five days a week, 40 weeks a year?"
Others make no apologies.
"Spying on kids is not the motive," says Teen Arrive Alive spokesman Jack Church, who lost a teenage son in a car crash. "To me, as a parent, this is peace of mind. It's saying, 'I want you to stay alive to see your graduation.'"
That's one reason Schmidt plans to continue using the service.
"As much as (my son) protests and hates it, we're the only parents who know what's going on," he says. "I think kids want to know their parents care."