In March, 15-year-old Joshua Brumfield got a shiny new BlackBerry Pearl, and his parents got a new way to watch out for their son.
The Brumfields signed up to be early users of Radar, software designed to let parents monitor incoming calls on their child's mobile phone. Anytime Joshua gets a call from someone not on a call list approved by his parents, they will receive a real-time text alert on their cell phone or online.
For example, during the first two days on the phone, Joshua got six calls from a stranger within a few hours--and the Brumfields got six text alerts. So they asked Joshua about the calls, and he told them they were from a man looking for his ex-girlfriend who didn't believe that her number had changed. The stranger had grown more aggressive with each call, thinking that Joshua was a new boyfriend.
"Radar really helped us see this was definitely a problem, one our son wouldn't have said anything about," said Lisa Brumfield, a Laguna Hills, Calif., mother of three boys. Joshua's father called the man to straighten out the situation.
The Brumfields were among the first adopters of Radar, which was released this spring by Newport Beach, Calif.-based security company EAgency Systems. Initially, the Radar software, which costs about $10 a month on top of a wireless plan, has worked only with BlackBerry devices and other smart phones, a factor that has limited growth. But according to Bob Lotter, the company's founder, Radar is poised for wider distribution through deals with Motorola and Verizon Wireless.
The company is working through a certification process with Motorola so that the software will work with Razr phones. (A Motorola representative didn't immediately return a call for comment.) Lotter also said the company is in talks with Verizon Wireless, which has a subscriber base of more than 60 million. Verizon Wireless representative Jeffrey Nelson said he couldn't comment on any potential relationship with EAgency.
A few hundred people have subscribed to Radar so far, Lotter said.
Still, Radar could mark a shift toward greater monitoring by parents through cell phones, much the way it happened on the Web years ago. As more kids live their lives on mobile devices--text messaging, sending photos, scheduling school assignments, surfing the Web and calling their social circle--some parents are using tracking software to protect them from predators or bullies, or to simply stay connected.
In the last year, several companies have introduced mobile technology that let parents track their kids, primarily between the ages of 8 and 15. Disney, for example, last year started selling a phone service called Disney Mobile, which lets parents set time parameters on their kids' cell phone usage and track the location of their handsets using GPS, among other features. In 2006, Verizon also started selling a service called Chaperone, which for $10 a month lets parents use the phone's embedded GPS chip to locate the cell phone (and presumably the kid). For another $10 a month, Verizon also sells "geo-fencing," a service that lets parents set geographic barriers, or zones, within which their child can use the phone during prescribed times and places, such as within 10 yards of the school yard on weekdays.
The wireless carriers don't break out adoption rates for these services, but Verizon's Nelson called it a niche market.
"This is a great feature for a pretty finite group of consumers. It's not a giant mass market," Nelson said.
Researchers say that tweens are among the fastest growing segments of the cell phone population. Roughly 12 percent of U.S. children ages 8 to 9 have cell phones, and 24 percent of kids ages 10 to 11 have cell phones, according to a February survey from market research firm JupiterResearch.
Lotter, who founded EAgency five years ago to make the mobile management software Nice Office, developed Radar as a way to deal with the issues parents face in a mobile-phone culture. He's particularly concerned with the threat of predators using cell phones to get at kids age 8 to 14.
"A lot of what was happening online is moving to the cell phone--cyberbullying and harassment--and most of its use is unmonitored. We wanted to help solve those issues," he said.
His company developed Web-based software that lets parents log onto a secure site, called Mymobilewatchdog.com, to manage their account. Once a parent signs up for the monthly service, Radar will download the software wirelessly to a compatible phone. The parent then goes online to set up a child's friends and family call list, and can log back on anytime to see a record of all calls (numbers and duration), full text messages, and soon, MMS picture messages, which have been sent to the Radar-installed phone.
And if anyone who's not on that approved list tries to call or text-message the child's phone, Radar sends a real-time alert to the parent's phone, regardless of his or her carrier or hardware. Parents can also see a copy of the text message on their phone, or see which numbers have called the phone.
For example, Lisa Brumfield got a text message last Saturday at 2 a.m. warning her that a stranger had just called Joshua, who was spending the night at a friend's house. She asked him about it the following morning. "Every time I get an alert of an unusual phone call, I ask him about it. This turned out to be a wrong number," she said.
Joshua is well aware that the software is installed on his BlackBerry--the Radar logo is displayed on the phone--and he doesn't mind, he said. But privacy advocates warn that this kind of monitoring can erode trust between parent and child.
"Kids' privacy rights are by custom and tradition, like respecting closed doors and journals," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based privacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Constant surveillance of your kids or secret surveillance of your kids may not be the best way to build trust, and that's something parents need to consider."
He added that clever kids will often find a way around tracking software. For example, youngsters have been known to use Web proxies to work around filters installed in school computer labs. Rotenberg said that he's also heard of kids using aluminum foil to disable GPS locators on the cell phone.
Still, Lotter is hoping that Radar will be used by law enforcement agencies to catch and convict predators. He said that the tamper-proof data-retention system his company has built creates a record of evidence that could be admissible in a court of law. "We operate on the idea that long before something bad happens to a child, there's a chain of communication and we want to intervene early on that chain."
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Stefanie Olsen covers science and technology for CNET News.com. In this series, she examines the young generation's unique immersion in the Web, cell phones, IM and online communities.
Sit with children when they're online to ensure they visit only parent-approved Web sites. The American Library Association lists great sites for kids on its Web site.
Use child-friendly search engines or one with parental controls. KidsClick, for example, is a Web search site by librarians.
Establish a family e-mail account.
Talk to children about their online activities and online friends. To kids, the Internet is an extension of the real world.
Establish rules for the Internet. Studies from Canada's Media Awareness group have shown that children respond positively to established rules.
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