Some day care centers in Sweden are starting to use GPS and other electronic devices to keep track of kids when they go on supervised outings, according to an Associated Press report from Stockholm on Wednesday. Some have welcomed the idea as a practical solution, while others say it raises ethical concerns and invades children’s privacy.

Par Strom, an author and commentator who specializes in the evolution of IT and its consequences for businesses, individuals and society, told Swedish news agency Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå (TT) he could see both sides of the argument about using technology to track kids, and was personally in two minds about it.

“On the one hand I can see the practical advantages in some situations. At the same time you get children used to constant surveillance at a very young age,” said Strom.

The concerns are sufficient to raise the interest of Sweden’s Data Inspection Board, who say they are likely to investigate the matter. The Board works to protect individual privacy in the information society. Their team leader, Eric Janzon, said the system could be “quite harmless”, or it could “affect aspects of privacy”.

For instance, there could be problems around storing personal data, or details of a person’s whereabouts.

“It depends on what kind of information you feed into the system and the purpose of the use,” said Janzon.

And even if it is initially developed for a good purpose, it could later be misused, he added.

Some parents are concerned that the technology is a means to replace staff at day care centers. Others are also worried about the ethical implications, and whether putting children under close surveillance could affect their sense of privacy as they get older.

But the day care centers appear to see it as a very useful practical device.

One day care center principal told the Associated Press they use the devices when they take the children on supervised excursions in the forest. The children wear a special vest that incorporates a transmitter, allowing staff to see where they are on a screen.

Monica Blank-Hedqvist, who runs a center in the city of Borlange, said the system is “excellent, it has been only positive for us”.

She said they use it as extra security: they have three supervisors for 20 children, and the system quickly tells them when any children stray too far.

One of the companies supplying GPS devices is Purple Scout. Their spokesman said they did not store personal information, and they see the trackers as an aid to staff, not a replacement. They are currently testing their system at a day care center in the south of Sweden, but already have orders from many private centers, he said.

But some parents would prefer the money was used to pay for more staff. That was also the opinion of Malin Wollin, a columnist with the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet. Wollin, who has three children, said it was a shame the money and energy was not going on salaries instead, noting that technology can sometimes “play up”: anyone who has a cell phone or a computer knows this, she said.

The idea of tracking kids with GPS is not new, and has been raising controversy ever since the devices started appearing on websites, with benefits statements designed to bring peace of mind to anxious parents.

One person who has given some thought to this is Dr Michael Ungar, who believes kids do better when they know adults are watching, but urges parents to note there is a difference between tracking and monitoring children.

In a Psychology Today blog in October 2010, Ungar, a family therapist, researcher at Dalhousie University, and the author of “The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids”, writes:

“Tracking [kids] is intrusive and teaches them irresponsibility (don’t think they won’t lie to you or find ways around your surveillance). But monitoring is about relationship building. It’s about asking our child where he is going, and what he is doing, and maybe even what is special about being there, with those friends. Monitoring tells our children ‘I care’ and that as their parents, we want to teach them how to keep themselves safe. Tracking says ‘You are incapable of looking after yourself.’ There’s a big difference between those two messages.”

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD