April 14, 2014

FiLIP: solving parent paranoia in the digital age

It just makes you shake your head in disappointment. You see a family of four out to eat. The children - a daughter, looks to be about nine, a son, seven - both clutching cellphones. And they're iPhones no less. Look across the restaurant and see another two parents; their babysitter quit on them before their weekly night out to dinner. Their two-year-old starts to wail at the table, so mommy hands him an iPad like some sort of digital pacifier. Maddening.

Personally, I didn't own a cellphone until age 13. I was always trusted to get to and from school on the bus without incident. If ever I went to a friend's place, they knew that I could call them on a house phone to check in, so they resisted the cellphone "fad" for a long time. My parents only gave in when, in high school, after-school marching band rehearsals had varied and unpredictable end times. I was constantly borrowing my friends' cell phones in order to make calls at a time when unlimited minutes were a luxury. They cracked and I had a Sony Ericsson flip phone for two years.

I'm not saying my parents did it perfect, nor am I saying that parents who give their children cellphones too soon are bad people. They're trying to adapt to the digital age, and the digital age is scary. We believe that kidnappers, pedophiles, and predators lurk in windowless vans in every neighborhood, and fear for the safety of our children in perpetuity. With so many dangers, technology will surely provide an answer. So we thrust fragile, hundred dollar communicators into the grubby little hands of elementary school students and feel relief. Now you can call your son or daughter at all times, even track them using Find My iPhone. That is, of course, if they haven't dropped it in the toilet, shattered it on the playground, or had it taken up in class because they were caught playing apps.

Y'see, kids don't need cellphones. They're already growing up in an age of technology that spreads focus so thin that studies are finding suffering attention spans and levels of intercommunication in children. They certainly don't need a gateway to those influences in their hip pocket. But parents still want (note: 'want', not 'need') a way of contacting their child and knowing they are safe. In comes the FiLIP.

I love damn near everything about this product. The FiLIP was clearly designed with kids in mind at every turn. The visual appeal is child-like from the bright, goofy colors to the chunky build. I remember having a hideous, blue watch that looked a lot like it in fifth grade. It's also kid-proofed with a simple two-button interface and a shock absorbing, water resistant shell to protect what is a surprisingly advanced little device.

With the FiLIP you can communicate with your child and feel assured of their safety without opening them to the potentially harmful influences of owning a cellphone at a young age. The FiLIP device and account allow just five phone numbers to be stored: both parents, grandpa, auntie and a neighbor makes five. The FiLIP can only be reached through the app, so you aren't allowing your child unrestricted communication with their friends.

The smartphone integration is very clever, allowing parents to set up push notifications when their child arrives at or leaves an area determined by geolocation, called a SafeZone. Say Suzy wants to bike over to Beth's house. Define Beth's address as a SafeZone. Tell Suzy to wear her FiLIP and you know that it takes about five minutes for the ride. You don't get the expected notification after seven minutes, so you check the app and see that Suzy isn't moving on the map. Call her and find out that she crashed her bike and needs to be picked up. FiLIP saves the day.

And what does all this safety and assurance cost you, fretting parents? About $199.99, plus an additional $10 a month for unlimited voice calls and location data. So... even more than in iPhone 5C. Yikes. But price is probably my only sticking point for an otherwise flawless product. And wouldn't you be willing to drop $200 for a little peace of mind? I certainly would, especially on a device that's sturdy enough that I don't expect to have to double-down on a new one in two years.

All-in-all, I think the FiLIP is a brilliant idea. We're buying from a market that is trying desperately to create the perfect omni-tool: one smart device to solve all of life's problems. But kids don't need that same omni-tool. They need a stepping stone to introduce them to technology before getting the adult version. The FiLIP is the kind of niche product that has the potential to be that device, and to take off as a societal standard. Because as worried as we are about our children's safety, we need to be worried about what cellphone exposure does to them as well.

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