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When their daughter entered fourth grade and began taking the school bus last fall in Richfield, Cara Johnson and her husband wanted a secure way to communicate with her in case she went to the wrong stop or was worried about a strange car or person along the way.

They wanted a device that enabled connectivity but not a smartphone that would allow their daughter to be on apps like Snapchat. Something inexpensive was key because "she's a kid, and I figured she was going to destroy it," Johnson said.

They settled on a Gizmo Watch from Verizon for about $100. The watch has 4G cellular connectivity and two-way calling and messaging. Parental controls let Johnson determine who has permission to call or text her daughter.

"It'll tell me if she's at the school, and it'll tell me if she's on the bus on the way home," Johnson said. "You need something that's a bit more durable but also isn't going to break the bank. I don't want to spend $600 on a watch that she can break just by being a kid."

A variety of devices — from basic GPS tags to smartwatches — offer the promise of parental peace of mind while allowing an age-appropriate level of independence for the child.

But there's not a one-size-fits-all approach to how parents and caregivers should consider this decision, especially for young kids. Child psychologists, safety experts and local parents all have strategies for navigating tracking your offspring.

"Everybody has different values, so I think you have to look at the big picture and put some perspective on it," said Marguerite Ohrtman, professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota.

Here are some options — an ethics to consider — if you're looking for ways to keep track of your kid this school year and beyond:

Ask yourself

Parents, Ohrtman said, must ask themselves: "What makes sense for my family right now?"

And that depends on the cost, your tolerance for maintenance, the device's functions and likely your child's age.

"It's alleviates a lot of that stress and worries that parents have, and it can help you maintain a closer connectivity if you're a working parent or if there are different things that keep you from being there and picking your kid up after school," said Rebecca Edwards, a marketing manager and lead safety reporter with, a website that covers safety and security products. "I think it's just more available than it used to be, so parents are like, 'This is something I can do.'"

Continued costs

Base costs range wildly — from $30 to hundreds of dollars — for tracking devices. Then there is the subscription cost, as many of the top models on the market require a data plan. Set your budget for both the device cost and any ongoing subscription expenses before making the purchase.

The device cost will vary depending on the features and functions. Some smartwatches allow children to send and receive phone and video calls as well as text functions.

Mary Roswick of Chaska wasn't looking for a smartwatch her son, who was 7, could wear to school. It was mainly technology to track his whereabouts in their neighborhood during the summer months.

She settled on the TickTalk watch, which costs about $190, including a charging station. It's $10 per month for a data plan that comes with the watch, but under the company's pay-as-you-go model, Roswick can deactivate anytime.

The watch has video calling as well as text messaging and location tracking. It's a nifty tool Roswick's son, now 8, can use until he's ready for a smartphone, Roswick said.

To operate, most devices require downloading an accompanying app, which Johnson does through the GizmoHub app, and Roswick through the TickTalk app.

Survey the options

When asked which devices they prefer for the children, the majority of parents belonging to a popular Facebook group, Minnesota Moms — which has more than 20,000 members — chose Verizon's Gizmo.

Other devices that received a high number of votes from the group were Apple's iPad, Watch and AirTag, a small GPS tracking device. The Gabb Watch, from a Utah company of the same name, also received votes.

The JrTrack smartwatch from Cosmo is another popular item, Edwards said, as is Jiobit, a leading GPS tracker designed specifically for tracking and requiring a monthly service subscription beyond the initial hardware purchase.

Whatever the device, parents are mostly seeking watches that offer safe and secure tracking solutions that let parents "give their kids space while keeping tabs on where they are" but also enable two-way communication, said George Koroneos, a Verizon spokesman.

More than tracking, communicating

Biometrics, not just location, are other features parents are also considering when looking for devices, said Griffin Schaetzle, a spokesman from Garmin, a smartwatch maker based in Kansas. The company's smartwatches for kids include the vívofit jr. 3 ($90), which is mainly for children in kindergarten through third grade, and Bounce ($150), for kids closer to middle school. Both can track sleep and daily steps.

Edwards advised parents to read the fine print about the device, especially privacy rules, and ask questions if they don't understand the data-sharing practices of the company, like if the company deletes data properly after certain periods of time.

Talk to your kids

Before giving their children a brand-new smartwatch, parents should have conversations about being responsible digital citizens, the appropriate ways to use technology and why their parents are giving them these devices, Edwards said.

"It's a fine line because you don't want to make your children afraid," she said. "'I want to know where you are because bad guys might grab you,' which is very unlikely to happen, but you don't want to plant those seeds in your kids' minds. You also want them to understand the importance of something like this."

Letting kids know it's not a spying mechanism is key, Edwards said. That was the approach Johnson and her husband took with their daughter.

"Mom and Dad can look at her location, and it was not necessarily about trust but about safety," she said.

Parenting still required

Ohrtman said today's caregivers often fall in the category of lawnmower parents, those who raze any obstacles or barriers for their child to reduce the risk of conflict.

The pandemic exacerbated this trend — also sometimes called bulldozer or snowplow parenting — as caregivers were constantly solving and troubleshooting countless challenges for themselves and their families, Ohrtman said.

She cautioned gadgets aren't silver bullets for avoiding perceived inconveniences or barriers.

"I talk to a lot of parents, and you want a quick fix. It's not a quick fix," she said. "There's an extra layer of parenting, even though it's supposed to free up some of your anxiety."

Follow school rules

Parents should also communicate with teachers and school administrators to find out what devices classrooms allow, as it could become a distraction, Edwards said. Many watches, though, have do-not-disturb capabilities parents can turn on during school hours while still receiving location information.

Talking with her daughter's teacher at the beginning of the school made the decision easier, said Johnson, whose daughter will occasionally call during a bathroom break.

"If you have clear expectations between both the teacher and the parent of when the use is permissible, I don't think it's an issue," she said.

Last school year, Roswick's son could bring his watch to school but wasn't allowed to wear it in class given its camera and gaming functions, she said.

"I don't know if it'll be the same for this new class," she said.

Star Tribune staff writer Kristen Leigh Painter contributed to this story.