Smartphone Alternatives for Free-Ranging Kids
A popular topic in our blogs is “when to buy a child a smartphone,” and for good reason. It’s an important conversation, one that calls for plenty of research and reflection as you look to balance the risks and rewards of giving your child a smartphone. Maybe you’ve already arrived at your answer and decided that your child isn’t ready—yet you still like the idea of using technology to keep in touch with your kiddo. If so, you still have options.
Why is smartphone ownership for children on the rise?
And that’s the thing. We want to keep in touch with our kids. We’ve seen studies and heard anecdotal references time and time again: one of the top reasons parents give a child a smartphone is “to stay in touch.” Whatever the reason parents cite, smartphone ownership by young users is on the rise. According to recent research from Common Sense Media, 19% of eight-year-olds in the U.S. owned a smartphone in 2019, compared to just 11% in 2015. (Nearly double!) Looking at older tweens, 69% of twelve-year-olds owned one, whereas that number was just 41% in 2015.
As these numbers rise, it begs some questions about how families can benefit from giving a smartphone to a child, particularly a younger one. One thought that quickly comes to mind is that families have a lot to juggle with jobs, school, activities, play dates, and so forth all in the mix. Smartphones help us keep on top of it all. With texting, calls, calendars, and GPS, it seems to offer some easy answers when it comes to keeping organized and on schedule. Likewise, the reality is that we have households where parents work multiple jobs or keep hours that go outside the regular 9-to-5, which makes staying connected that much more important, to the degree that it’s a near necessity.
Another thought around the rise of young smartphone owners is around a desire to help our kids become more independent, or at least semi-independent with some supervision. Maybe that’s letting them walk to school or a friend’s house, all with the reassurance that you can track where they are with GPS and feel good knowing they can get in touch with you quickly if they need to (and vice-versa).
Free-Range Parenting and Smartphone Technology
Taking that approach a step further is the re-invigorated notion of “free-range parenting,” which harkens back to the days of the 70’s, 80’s and even earlier when kids were simply sent out of the house to go roam around the neighborhood and playgrounds with friends until suppertime. The pros and cons of allowing your child to explore their world more freely and to do so with less direct supervision is a conversation unto itself. Local laws vary, as do family situations, not to mention a child’s age and overall level of preparedness. So while free-range parenting is a snappy phrase, it’s a rather complex topic. I don’t bring it up glibly. Yet, it’s a conversation that’s been making the rounds in parenting blogs in recent years. Now, with how pervasive smartphone ownership has become, the conversation gets that much more interesting. But is a smartphone really the best tool here?
The flipside is that a smartphone, for all its benefits, like instant messaging, texting, location tracking, family calendars, and good old phone calls, obviously has its drawbacks when they’re in the hands of young kids. A smartphone an open door to the broader internet—social media, games, endless hours of videos, not to mention content that you know is not appropriate for them. It’s a world that no child should be thrown into cold. Just like learning to walk, it should be entered gradually, in baby steps.
Stay in Touch without the Smartphone
And thankfully there are devices that are built just for that, while still giving families the means “to stay in touch” without introducing the risks of the internet to young children at too soon an age. In short, you don’t need a smartphone to get all the benefits of a smartphone, at least when it comes to keeping tabs on your children.
What follows are a few options you can check out and research for yourself. Know that I’m not personally endorsing or recommending any particular brand, device, or phone here. My aim is to give you a nudge into an initial direction with a quick overview of what’s out there so that you can make a choice that works great for your family. Let’s take a look:
The trusty flip phone. Rugged. Low-cost. Long battery life. Together, that makes them a fine option for kids. The options for them are quite broad, where you can get phones that are essentially just phones and nothing else, to other models that include cameras, push-to-talk walkie-talkie communications, and slide-out keyboards for texting. Doing a little research online will turn up numerous lists of the “best” flip phones and give you a strong idea of which one has the features you want (and don’t want) for your child.
Cellular and Wi-Fi Walkie-Talkies
An interesting and relatively recent entry into the “just for kids” phone market is the relay phone. In actuality, the relay looks more like a small speaker that’s the size of a standard sticky note and the width of an ice cream sandwich, which is quite practical. Kids can clip it on to their backpack, pop it in their pocket, or wear it on an armband. With a big button in the center, it gives kids a screen-free, push-to-talk phone that works with cellular and Wi-Fi networks. The other great feature for parents and their free-ranging kids is the combination of GPS tracking and geofencing. This way, you can always know where your children are and get alerts if they stray from the geofenced area you prescribe (like a few blocks around your home or a route to and from school). Additionally, it includes SOS emergency alerts, where five quick taps of the button will send an instant notification.
Smart Watches for Kids
Similar to the above, the U.S. mobile carrier Verizon offers a smart watch for children called the GizmoWatch2. At first glance, it looks like many other smart watches on the market but with a twist: you can load it with up to 10 contacts that you approve, so your child can text or call them with the push of a button. And like the relay phone, it also has GPS technology that allows you to instantly locate your child and get alerts when they step outside of their geofenced area. Other features include a step counter, tasks and reminders, plus a calendar function for setting a schedule. And yes, it’s a watch too. Pretty convenient, as it’s simply something that your child can wear.
For families in the EU, XPLORA offers a range of smart watches for kids that are currently available for online shopping in UK, Germany, Spain, France and Poland, and in selected retail stores. Another option for UK families is the Vodaphone V-Kids Watch, which offers GPS tracking, voice messaging, and an SOS button as well.
First Phones for Kids
On the more fully featured side, Gabb Wireless offers a phone and network made for young users. The look and feel of this device is more like a smartphone, yet the functionality and apps are narrowed down to the basics. It includes messaging, a camera, and things like a calculator, voice recorder, and calendar. What’s missing are social media apps, games, and internet browsing (and everything that comes with that). It’s available in the lower 48 states of the U.S. (for now).
Giving Your Child an “Old” Smartphone
One option for parents is to give a child an old smartphone, say a phone that might be otherwise destined for a swap at the mobile phone shop, and to “dumb it down” by removing everything but the most essential of apps. However, as you are certainly aware, kids are smart. And curious. Count on them figuring out how to make that dumb phone smart again by reloading apps on their own. One more thing to keep in mind is that your old data and passwords may be on this phone, so you’d want to reset your phone completely, like back to the original factory settings, to avoid any access or data issues. You’d also want to pick up antivirus for your iOS or Android phone and apply some parental controls to it as well.
So while this route may feel like you’re getting some extra mileage out of a phone and giving your child the means to stay in touch, know that it comes with those risks. With that, I don’t recommend this for the younger ones in your life.
Thinking Twice About Smartphones for Kids
Just as you want to monitor where your child is and what they’re doing out in the neighborhood, the same holds true for the internet. That’s a good a reason as any to put some serious thought before you put a smartphone in your child’s hands. As we’ve seen, the good news is that you don’t need a smartphone to keep in touch with your child. Yet more reassuring is that mobile carriers and technology companies are paying attention to the concerns that parents have and creating products that address them. Research your options and be sure to share what you find with other parents. You may start something special in your circle of friends.