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If your kids are too young for smartphones, there are still ways to track them
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Tweens often want a little independence, but parents still need a way to keep in touch. A new smartphone alternative has tracking and two-way communication, but no screen. - photo by Pixabay

We all need help keeping track of our kids sometimes. Features like Find My Friends on mobile phones are a great resource when it comes to knowing whether your children are where they’re supposed to be. But lots of tweens are in that stage where they wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a bulky kids’ GPS watch, but aren’t quite responsible enough to carry around a smartphone. A new product on the market called Relay wonderfully fills this gap in the parent/child communication market.

Relay is a palm-size gadget with two small buttons on the side for volume and power, and one large center button for communication. It uses cellular and Wi-Fi networks for walkie-talkie functionality between Relays or from Relay to smartphone.

Jon Schniepp, Relay's senior vice president for product and marketing, told me developers at Relay saw a need in their own families for kids between ages 6 and 12.

“We wanted a way to keep in touch with them, but we were also aware of the risks of getting a kid a smartphone who is frankly too young for it,” he said.

As every parent knows, each child matures differently and at varying speed, so there is no hard and fast age when every kid is ready for a smartphone. If you have a child who wants a little independence, but you aren’t prepared to give them a phone worth hundreds of dollars, this gadget could be the answer.

The minute I took the two Relays out of the packaging, my 11-year old son and his friend simultaneously yelled, “Cool!” They grabbed them and took off, no instructions needed. They turned on the devices and pushed the big button on the front and easily figured out and had fun using the walkie-talkie feature.

We headed to the outlet mall that afternoon and when they tired of watching me comb through clothing racks, I let them venture off to the toy store. With each boy armed with a Relay in their pocket, I kept in touch through the app now and then and also checked the app’s tracking feature to make sure they were still in the toy store. Best of all, I didn’t have to go hunt them down and was able to let them know when it was time to go and to meet me at the car. They actually enjoyed using the Relay, and Schniepp said that was part of the plan.

“We tried tracker watches with our kids and found that after they got over the initial enthusiasm about getting a new watch, the novelty wore off pretty quick,” he said.

I’ve been using the Relay with my son now for about a month and he still thinks it’s cool. So do his friends. Schniepp told me that’s one reason it’s a better smartphone alternative than a phone that only makes calls/texts — or as he called them, “dumbphones.”

“Dumbphones don’t have the cool factor,” he said. “We founds kids didn’t want to get their dumbphone out in front of their friends.”

The app allows parents to create channels to simultaneously link with all the Relays in a network, or for individual communication. Friends can also create a temporary channel called Instant Chat simply by bumping the backs of their gadgets together. Any Relay they bump will be in on the conversation until they switch to another chat channel. This feature could be useful when taking your child and a bunch of friends to the amusement park or a baseball game (assuming all your kid’s friends also buy this gadget).

Schniepp said the company is working on trivia-type games coming in the future, but for now kids can use the Echo feature that makes their voice sound funny. Channels featuring internal music storage and smart assistant functionality are also coming soon.

According to a PR representative from Relay, the app's recent update allows kids to contact a guardian even if the guardian doesn't have the app open. To make contact, a child can press the device's volume button for a few seconds, which sends a push notification to the guardian's phone.

Relays start at $99 for one device, but you can buy two for $149 or three for $199. They don’t require a contract, but the service (paid directly to the company, not to your cell phone service provider) will cost $6.99 per month per device.

That price is a steal when compared to a smart phone data plan, and parents won’t have the worry of their child spending more time looking at a screen. Schniepp said they wanted to create something to help parents keep in touch with kids that was fun and interesting.

“We tried to develop something kids would use, but not abuse,” he said.

Amy Iverson is a graduate of the University of Utah. She has worked as a broadcast journalist in Dallas, Seattle, Italy and Salt Lake City. Amy, her husband, and three kids live in Summit County, Utah. Contact Amy on Facebook.com/theamyiverson
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