Smartwatches designed for children have typically been used only by China’s concerned middle classes to track their children. But now the authorities in rural Guizhou are giving the devices to thousands of elementary school-aged left-behind children with the hope that they will be safer and the data generated will help them tackle the social issue.

Bijie City in Guizhou province in Southwestern China has spent RMB 24 million to eventually equip over 100,000 elementary school-aged children with the devices (in Chinese). The children can make and receive calls and exchange voice messages—with their estranged parents, the authorities hope. The devices have health-monitoring functions, GPS tracking, and an emergency call feature to instantly alert the police. 

JD.com kids smartwatches

Selection of smartwatches for kids available on JD.com

China has around 61 million left-behind children. Cities suck in migrant workers without providing them with public services or welfare, meaning they often have to leave their children at home, typically with grandparents. The prevalence of left-behind rural children is 35.6% nationally, with some provinces reaching rates as high as 50%.

Guizhou is not quite at the top of this league table but has perhaps seen some of the most gruesome implications of the phenomenon. In 2012, five left-behind boys suffocated to death in Bijie City after burning coal in the dumpster where they were sheltering. In 2015, four left-behind children from one family committed suicide by drinking pesticide after suffering domestic abuse in the city. In 2016, 12 girls between eight and 12 years old, most of them left-behind children, were raped by a teacher in Bijie City. Gangs have formed with children involved in crime and violence. In 2015, in neighboring Nayong County, at least nine children were murdered, with most of the suspects also juveniles.

In February 2016, the State Council (China’s cabinet) ordered the establishment of a database of all left-behind children with a regularly-updated file for each child. For the authorities in Guizhou, the wristbands will provide a rich map of real-time data of these children. The system is even programmed to alert the police if any of the records are not sufficiently up-to-date.

In its announcement of the project, the Guizhou government said the devices would “solve the shortcomings in care by families and insufficient communication between parents and children.” But profiling the children as a group and individuals through data collection is the main aim: where they go, who they’re with, how many steps they’re taking.

Children are being given a monthly data allowance for the SIM cards in the watches according to the China Daily. They get 500MB of data and 200 minutes of calls, the equivalent of an RMB 15.9/month package.

Xiaomi kids smartwatch

Xiaomi Mitu 2 kids’ phone smartwatch

“These measures mark another step in strengthening the foundations for our work to protect and care for left-behind children and children in need,” said Liu Zhongping, Guizhou’s deputy head of the provincial Ministry of Civil Affairs. But the project has not been welcomed by all, as residents taking to Sina Weibo have pointed out that this money could have been spent on ways to bring the parents back as a better way to tackle the issue of left-behind children.

Smartwatches for kids

The devices have been available for some time in China, with options for a range of budgets. Xiaomi, for example, is on its second generation. Their RMB 399 Mitu 2 Children’s Phone Watch is described by the brand as “The little gift that lets children explore a big world.” A SIM card is inserted to allow the watch to track children via BeiDou (China’s satellite navigation), GPS and base stations, plus WiFi, the gravity sensor and even using the camera embedded in the device which parents can access remotely at any point. The interface can track children for 3 months and parents can set a safe zone. If a child strays beyond this area, a warning is sent.

WeChat-like voice messages can be exchanged and parents can set up a whitelist of numbers to filter incoming calls. In an emergency, the wearer can press on the screen for three seconds and the watch will send the child’s location to parents and start immediate recording. The wristband also functions as a health tracker for parents to evaluate how much exercise their kids get. Then, for the kids, there’s a built-in Tamagotchi and a library of audiobook stories.

Add in the fact the watch lasts six days on one charge and the $60 price tag even gives the likes of the Apple Watch a run for its money.

Security concerns

Similar devices aimed at children have recently been found to be easily hacked. Earlier this month the Norwegian Consumer Council announced that its tests on several imported smartwatches for kids revealed significant security flaws and privacy breaches which allow hackers to easily manipulate the watches’ features such as call whitelists and camera to spy on the wearers and spoof their location.

“It’s very serious when products that claim to make children safer instead put them at risk because of poor security and features that do not work properly,” said Finn Myrstad, Director of Digital Policy at the organization. “Importers and retailers must know what they stock and sell. These watches have no place on a shop’s shelf, let alone on a child’s wrist.”