Here's an item you might want to add to your back-to-school shopping list -- an app to track what your child is doing on his or her cellphone.
Not only can some of these tracking apps provide a minute-by-minute account of where kids are and have been, but also the content of what they are texting and to whom, what websites they are visiting, who is calling them and whom they are calling, and what they are saying on social media.
One even promises to translate common texting language for parents not yet in the know on phrases such as "BRB" (that's "be right back"). Another allows parents to see any video a child has created. Yet another allows parents to watch a video chat live on Skype.
The demand for technology providing such parental oversight comes at a time when Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook and other apps are standard fare on any young person's smartphone and texting is a part of the modern family's life. While most communication may be innocent enough, a recent study by Drexel University showed that more than half of college students sent or received sexually explicit text messages of images when they were under the age of 18 -- with some saying they did it when they were as young as 13.
"Parents are now catching onto all of this, and the availability of these applications is growing," says Chad Widman, owner of Long Island Private Investigator LLC in Lindenhurst.
Local psychologists have mixed feelings about using apps to keep an eye on a child's cellphone activity.
"When parents rely on covert surveillance to monitor their children, they fail to teach the child self-regulation skills and impulse control," says Andrea Macari, associate professor of psychology at Suffolk County Community College and clinical psychologist in private practice in Great Neck.
Macari suggests that parents focus instead on helping their child make good choices.
But Deena Abbe, a psychologist in private practice in Commack and president of the Suffolk County Psychological Association, disagrees, saying that there are many situations that children think they can handle but simply can't.
"There is such a need for these apps," says Abbe, who adds that she believes there is nothing morally wrong with them. She says every parent should use them as long as they let their child know that they are checking their social media and texts.
Abbe suggests that parents tell their children, "It's my job as a parent to keep you safe."
Macari also says that these apps serve a need, but only if the child fails to make good choices and only if the parents tell the child that they're putting them on the phone.
"I would recommend that they still use a collaborative parenting technique where together with the child, they establish a contract for how and when these apps would be used," Macari says. "The conditions should be child-driven rather than parent-driven, as this gives the child an opportunity to identify appropriate behaviors and to implement effective consequences for himself."
View sent, received and deleted texts; your child's current location on a map (as long as your child is with his or her phone) as well as the history of the phone's location; logs of incoming and outgoing calls, including contact name, number, date and duration; Instagram posts, comments and followers; Web search and browsing history; phone contacts.
COMPATIBILITY Works with iPhone and Android phones, iPads and iPod touch.
NOTE On Apple products, a child cannot remove the app because TeenSafe accesses the data via a cloud, but on Android it's a hidden app, so it can be deleted if found.
COST $15 per month. Cancel any time. An unlimited number of children can be added for no additional cost.
Block phone numbers from calls and text messages; block apps; set custom time restrictions; monitor text messages and get custom activity alerts; see real-time location tracking; see all calls dialed and received; view all WhatsApp and text messages; view all websites visited; receive alerts on use of any profane keywords and disallowed activities; filter inappropriate applications from access; view all photos taken; view calendar activities.
NOTE Children will be notified that they are being monitored.
COMPATIBILITY Works with iPhone, Android, iPads, tablets and BlackBerry
COST $49 for six months or $89 for 12 months; three devices can be monitored under one subscription
View Snapchat by monitoring keystrokes and more; monitor WhatsApp; view call logs; track location; view emails, images and video; watch Skype conversations; access calendar and address book; read instant messages; see imessages.NOTE Users have the option to keep it on the dashboard of the monitored device or to remove it.
COMPATIBILITY Android and iPhones
COST $30 per month for one phone for the basic plan (this doesn't offer many of the premium features such as social media and Snapchat monitoring). Premium or family plans are available starting at $70 per month for the premium features or $600 for six months for the family plan.
Track calls and text messages; view contacts and calendar; monitor browsing history; block websites and apps; monitor social media and chats; lock and wipe the device remotely; keep track of location and route history; advanced subscription plans allow users to view social media and videos that your child took or posted.
NOTE The app is visible on kids' phones, but it's password protected so they can't delete it.
COMPATIBILITY iPhone, Android
COST Starts at $24 per month or $64 for 12 months
Monitor text messages; record copies of texts, attached pictures and location; translate texting language into English ("BRB" becomes "Be Right Back," for instance); receive alerts when messages are sent with inappropriate content or language; view call history.
NOTE This does not have an icon that shows up on the child's phone, but can be disabled by a child because it's a running service on his phone. If TxtWatcher doesn't receive any messages from the child's phone in 48 hours, it will send an alert.
COST Starts at $5 per month or $48 annually for the basic plan, which monitors three phones.
My Mobile Watchdog
View phone logs; see text and photo messages; GPS tracking; receive instant alerts when unauthorized communication occurs; create an approved list of contacts for your child and receive alerts when the list is altered.
NOTE There is a visible My Mobile Watchdog icon on the child's phone and there is a warning message daily. Children cannot remove the app from the phone because it's password protected.
COMPATIBILITY Android and iPhone
COST $5 per month for up to five devices. Cancel at any time.
Ignore No More
Temporarily lock your child's phone so he can't use it to text or to make calls.
NOTE Kids can't disable the app. If they try, their phone will temporarily lock and parents will be notified.
COMPATIBILITY iPhone and Android
COST One time fee of $5.99. One account controls multiple devices.
Block apps; block websites; monitor Facebook; monitor Instagram; set Internet time limits; track location; view sent and received text messages; lock the phone remotely.
NOTE Children can see this app on their phones, but it's password protected so they can't disable it.
COMPATIBILITY Android and iPhone
COST $40 per year for up to three devices
View call logs; see recently visited websites; check out all apps used within the last 24 hours; block apps.
One parent's perspective, one child's perspective
Huntington resident Alyse Freda-Colon says she is looking for an app that will help her keep tabs on her sons, ages 15 and 16. "I feel like the consequences are so much more dramatic today than they used to be," she says. "Anyone could take a picture, and it could have long-term consequences. I want to be able to see everything going on."
David Grinthal, 16, of Copiague, says he understands why parents would feel the need to install tracking apps on their children's phones -- but he doesn't necessarily want one on his. "Parents have a good reason to do this, but I don't know how I'd feel about my parents doing this to the point where it was used excessively," says Grinthal, whose phone has no tracking apps. "I do kind of agree with the parents, though. The privacy issue is an invasion of privacy, but they are paying the bills."