Field test: GPS phones for kids

GPS-equipped phones can tell you if your children are indeed where they're supposed to be.

By Wilson Rothman, Money Magazine contributing writer

(Money Magazine) -- No. No. No. You have told your tween a thousand times. You will not allow him or her to have a cell phone. Your mobile bills are high enough without adding $200 a month to let her text her friends all weekend about "Shear Genius."

But wait. Would you reconsider if the phone not only let you speak to your wandering offspring at will but also told you exactly where they were at any moment? The power to do that is at hand. All it takes is the right GPS-enabled phones and the right service plan.

Already every Disney Mobile phone is equipped to be used as a tracking device, as are most of the handsets offered by Verizon Wireless and Sprint.

The kid-finding phones on the market today plot your child's whereabouts on a map on your phone's screen or on your computer, offering up city, street name and sometimes landmarks such as an airport or a mall. GPS is typically accurate to within a few yards, whether your kid is at the end of the block or running away to New York City.

The Sprint and Verizon Wireless services require at least one phone capable of GPS tracking. The "kid" phone can be any of a wide range of handsets that have GPS. If you plan to find your kid via your phone instead of the Web, you'll require a more advanced handset, as it will need to be able to display a street map.

Both carriers list eligible phones on their Web sites. Verizon and Sprint offer service for $9.99 a month.

For another $10 a month, Verizon adds a feature called Child Zone that allows you to set a radius around a certain point, such as a school or summer camp. If the child strays beyond the perimeter, you're notified by text message. (To set up this feature, you have to visit a Verizon store and bring ID; Verizon wants to make sure you're tracking your own kids, not someone else's.)

The Disney Family Locator, meanwhile, works with any two Disney phones. You get five free searches with any family plan, or unlimited searches for an extra $12.99 a month.

Why not simply phone your child and ask where he is? As experienced moms and pops know, kids don't always tell the truth; GPS keeps them honest. Of course, a locator service won't help if your child turns the phone off (or if the battery goes dead), but if the kids do intentionally go into stealth mode, they know you'll know.

To test the phones, we asked Carroll Hannon, an Indianapolis mom who denies any particular tech savvy, to give GPS phones from each of the three services to her oldest daughters, Beth, 15, Katie, 13, and Emily, 11, for two weeks.

When Carroll wanted to know where the girls were, she could open a phone or a password-protected Web site to get a GPS "fix." For Sprint or Verizon, the child's phone displayed a message that said something like "You are being located," though this wasn't the case for Disney.

The three systems worked remarkably well, with one exception. When Katie was supposed to be at a friend's, her Sprint phone placed her at a nearby mall. Carroll phoned her daughter's pal's home and learned that Katie was indeed there.

The problem, according to Sprint: When the phone cannot receive a GPS signal, such as in basements or windowless rooms, locations have to be triangulated from cell-phone towers, which give far cruder readings.

Other than that incident, Carroll liked the kid-finder phones - so much so, in fact, that she hated to part with them. "The peace of mind that comes with them is huge," she says.

See how the phones rated with the Hannon familyTop of page