My 8-year-old son recently added an iPhone 13 to our Amazon cart. He can’t find his shoes most days and surely can’t be trusted with a $999 device, but it’s a desire I knew to expect. His older brother did the exact same thing at his age, likely fueled by the fact that every adult he knows constantly has one in their own hands.
Today’s parents are raising the most screen saturated generation in history, and it’s scary. Should your baby watch TV or only stare at organic crib mobiles while Bach gently plays in the background? Should your preschooler get a tablet? Should you look for educational apps or just let your kids play Fruit Ninja so you can drink your coffee in peace?
Our kids will have phones at a far younger age than we ever did, and these phones will do much more than our first devices did. So when is it actually time to get your kid a phone? Each family has unique needs and challenges, and their answers will be different. For many parents — myself included — world events such as the pandemic and the uptick in gun violence accelerated the decision to get our kids phones. When we decided it was time for our oldest three children — twin third-graders and a fifth grader — to be connected, we knew we needed some safeguards in place. There’s a plethora of kid-friendly cell phones and wearable tech available, though, and I felt frozen with decision fatigue. Thankfully, a crew of professionals much better versed in the topic than me offered guidance.
How to know when your kid is really ready for a phone
While we quickly removed the iPhone from our cart, we knew we were going to dip a toe into the vast pool of phone options. I reached out to media technology expert Devorah Heitner, PhD, who has written extensively on the topic of raising “digital natives.” While millennial parents witnessed the tech explosion happen in real-time, today’s kids do not remember a world not ruled by technology.
Their first efforts may be wobbly. They will need mentoring and possibly some training wheels to get good at using these sophisticated communication devices.
Heitner, a mom herself, told me to look for a few key factors when deciding if a child is ready for a device of their own. “I would look for independence in chores, homework, walking, biking, or taking transit to and from school.” My kids walk to school, so that was my main motivation.
She also said a child’s first communication device is a learning process for families. When her son got a new bike last spring, she saw similarities to introducing phones. “The bigger bike our son was adjusting to also feels like a metaphor for smartphones: powerful machines that we give to kids, often at about that age. Their first efforts may be wobbly. They will need mentoring and possibly some training wheels to get good at using these sophisticated communication devices.” The training wheels, in this case, are the various safeguards and programs.
There’s a learning curve. For everyone.
It’s also important to prepare your kids for the responsibility of having a phone. Heitner recommends My First Phone, a graphic novel-style guide to cell phone usage by Catherine Pearlman, licensed clinical social worker and founder of the online training platform The Family Coach. The book, which covers safety, boundaries, and digital hygiene, is aimed at middle grade readers (around ages 8 to 13).
“[Kids] are really immersed in our phones before they ever get their own, and this book does a great job of talking about the responsibility of phones at their level,” says Heitner.
All of this legwork prepares parents for the inevitable and makes sure kids learn balance, says Heitner. “Kids are going to have phones. However, you don't want kids to be so dependent on those devices that they can’t ask for directions or use a street sign. If we are looking for house number 1500 and are at 1350 while the numbers ascend, they don’t need Google Maps. They need these skills. Phones aren’t the center of the universe; they are just how we access it.”
What smart devices are available for children?
Armed with a bit of knowledge, we began to look at the many communication devices available for caregivers to choose from. At the basic level, they’re all similar. Whether you go with a phone, a smartwatch, or another device, there are a ton of options that give kids connectivity with safeguards in place.
Our family spent several months trialing the many options that exist. These are the ones that made the cut for us:
Standard cell phone with Bark
We’ve been using Bark on our home internet for a while. The software blocks websites we choose, flags problematic search terms, and turns off the internet for our kids during certain times of the day. We added a simple Android phone to our existing cell phone account. Even though we do actually have an older iPhone in a drawer (don’t tell my kid!), Bark’s Chief Parenting Officer Titiana Jordan told me that Apple’s settings make it a bit trickier to use Bark – it can only monitor when my kid is on our home wifi. With an Android phone, it tracks all the time. “Our content monitoring relies on advanced artificial intelligence, and when you connect our service to your child’s accounts and devices, it continually scans and analyzes text messages, emails, and 30-plus apps and social media platforms for signs of danger.”
This worked well for our oldest, age 10. Monitoring the browser and chats as well as managing the amount of screen time felt like a good compromise. We also blocked specific websites like PornHub and categories like “sexual content.”
I love seeing what he Googles. My recent favorite was, “How much was 66,000 euros worth in 1942?” We plan to stick with this option as he enters middle school.
To purchase Bark monitoring for a phone and your home internet, check out plans and pricing here. Plans begin at $5/month and go up to $14/month. Bark is also planning to launch their own phone this fall. There’s a waitlist you can join.
Bark has also partnered with Pinwheel, a company that makes phones specifically for kids. We decided to try them out for our 8-year-old twins since they are a bit younger. Pinwheel designed specific software that runs on Blu brand phones with strong caregiver controls. Through the portal I added specific contacts and apps chosen and reviewed by a team of therapists at Pinwheel.
We liked that there were educational apps available such as PBS Kids and Moose Math – and that we could schedule when they appear. During school hours, the only apps we allowed were for calls and texting. At 3 p.m., other apps appear, and disappear again at bedtime. Nothing is a true time suck (looking at you, Roblox), but the twins are able to learn. Geocaching is popular in our town, so I love that they can use their Pinwheel phones to hunt for treasures.
To purchase a Pinwheel phone, check out plans and pricing here. Phones range in cost from $199 to $249, and Pinwheel monitoring services are $14/month. Parents will need to add prepaid minutes or a standard phone plan through a third-party carrier.
Troomi phones have a similar basic setup to Pinwheel phones: curated apps, a caregiver portal, and the ability to schedule app availability. My third graders loved the look of Troomi phones because they felt similar to what their peers and older brother have. Troomi actually uses the same Samsung A32 that my oldest child does. There are educational apps, but also a smattering of low-stakes games like Angry Birds and Toca Kitchen. I could also add my Disney+ account to the phones — which they loved during a long car trip. Since Troomi uses a common phone model, the case options were endless.
When we teach our kids to swim, we don’t just toss them in the ocean. We blow bubbles, we take lessons, and then they graduate to swimming. That’s how we view tech, too.
Heitner told me that while young kids don't need bottomless access to apps, “If the phone is too different from what kids’ peers have, they are going to be frustrated.” These felt like a great balance. The phones can grow with them with the ability to loosen restrictions.
To purchase a Troomi Wireless phone, check out plans and pricing here. Phones range in cost from $179 to $279, and plans range from $19.95-$29.95 per month. Troomi plans do not require a third-party phone plan.
There are so many options for smartwatches. We tried out Verizon GizmoWatches, which are nearly identical to T-Mobile’s SyncUp KIDS watch. They allow kids to call or text a few contacts, allow parents to view where their kids are via GPS, and have a few basic games like counting jumps or steps. We did find the GPS tracking of their location often lagged behind where they actually were in our neighborhood. Also, the only way to talk is on speakerphone, and they said they felt like their friends were listening in on our calls.
Gabb Wireless makes a watch for kids that functions more smoothly. (They also make a phone that is similar to the Pinwheel and Troomi, and while we did not try that out, it gets great reviews from caregivers). “The Gabb watch is a kid’s first step in tech,” says Anne Marie McDonald, the Chief Parenting Officer at Gabb. She said the company really wants kids to live their best life without being caught up in a screen. “We believe in tech in steps. When we teach our kids to swim, we don’t just toss them in the ocean. We blow bubbles, we take lessons, and then they graduate to swimming. That’s how we view tech, too.”
We also checked out some of the kid “phone watches” on Amazon that use prepaid minutes, but ultimately abandoned them due to their unreliability. Some prepaid minutes we bought did not work, the watches often failed to hold a charge, and sometimes when my kids tried to call me they were unable to connect. While the price was tempting, if it’s not working, it is pointless.
A Verizon GizmoWatch costs $99.99 and the data plan is $10/month with an existing Verizon account. Watches are currently on a BOGO sale.
T-Mobile SyncUp KIDS watches are $174 for the device and $10/month for service. When you sign a two-year commitment, customers can currently receive a free watch.
Gabb Wireless watches cost $149. Monthly plans range from $9.99/month to $16.99/month depending on the length of contract you choose. Gabb plans to release a phone geared for older kids in the coming months, too.
The Amazon Glow is not a phone or watch — it’s essentially an interactive screen plus projector with a set list of contacts, which was a terrific option for all of our kids, including my 4-year-old. Kids cannot take it with them — it stays plugged in at home. Our long-distance family members and grandparents call us constantly; it’s a great way to stay connected. It sits in our dining room, and even my tiniest kid can activate it and call a loved one. The receiving party doesn’t need a Glow, just the app. Their grandparents can read them a book from the interactive library, play a game, or draw a picture together.
“As every child psychologist knows, when you have more engagement between kids and caring adults, research shows a whole range of positive effects,” says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Professor of Psychology at Temple University, when I ask her about Glow. “Early language, early literacy, even early math all improve with connections and conversations. With Glow, by choosing a diverse range of easy activities — books, puzzles, games — young children stay engaged for much longer than they do on a regular video call, reaping the benefits.”
While we joke about screens being digital babysitters, Glow actually functions in that way. I love that even my preschooler could call my partner or parents in the event of an emergency so that they could send help.
The Amazon Glow retails for $299 and comes with one year free of Amazon Kids+. Amazon Kids+ starts at $4.99/month after that.
Editorial note: The author received media review samples of Bark monitoring, Pinwheel phones, Troomi phones, Gabb watches, and the Amazon Glow. All reviews are independent, and Romper only included options that we feel good about.