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Should I get my kid a flip phone?
And a very happy half birthday to us
When my son turned 6 months old, I cried. He was halfway to a year! I might as well stash away the pacifiers and start packing him up for college. It was too much. This week, Techno Sapiens turns 6 months old, and I’m having similar feelings. I haven’t yet found myself scrolling through old photos in the family shared album (he was so small!), a single tear rolling down my cheek, but who knows what will happen. I love writing Techno Sapiens, and I’m so grateful to all of you for inviting me into your inbox each week.
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Summary for Busy Sapiens
Some parents of tweens (ages 7 to 12) may consider non-smartphone devices
Kid smartwatches have limited features (calls with limited contacts, pre-programmed texts), but some have games and cameras
Kid smartphones allow calls, texts, music, and camera, but no browser or app store
Flip phones are…flip phones. Calls and texts (no group texts), but some come with YouTube pre-installed
There’s no solid evidence that these devices are harmful, but also no evidence that they’re totally harmless
This is a decision that’s about what works best for your family
Let’s talk about the in-betweeners. That stage, ages 7 to 12 (or so),1 when kids are no longer singing along to Daniel Tiger from your family’s iPad, but are also ill-prepared to plunge headfirst into the smartphone abyss. It’s a common time for some parents to start wondering about getting their kid—gasp—a device. A kid smartwatch, for example, or a basic flip phone.
Here’s a question I got from one parental sapien, which, I think, nicely outlines some of the issues we’re dealing with here.
I have a daughter, 7, and I'm trying to balance two opposing desires: (1) that she be contactable when I'm running late to pick her up, when plans have changed about where we'll meet after school, etc.; and (2) that she be kept away from phones, GPS, and especially social media for as long as possible. I see articles about these basic smartwatches for kids, and I'm intrigued, but it's still a screen, still a distraction on her person all the time.... do the costs outweigh the benefits? Have you seen any research on watches for kids? Is the basic smartwatch the gateway drug to device addiction? I'm only half kidding.
Ah, yes. Just your everyday parenting questions like, will this 3x4-inch device destroy my child’s innocence and send them down an irreversible spiral of tech addiction and unhappiness?
Ugh. Parenting is hard.
An imperfect analogy
When I was 16 years old, my parents had six children between the ages of 2 and 18. They decided, for reasons unknown to me, that this was the perfect time for a dog. And thus, Lucy entered our lives.
We loved, and still love, Lucy. She is adorable (see photo) and fun. She taught us about responsibility. She brought joy to our lives.
But she also brought a lot of other stuff: A complex, rotating schedule of who would feed, walk, and clean up after her. New rules for my toddler-age sisters, like no grabbing Lucy’s tail and no sticking fingers in Lucy’s mouth. New safety precautions, like lunging to the floor every time a chocolate chip fell within Lucy’s sight.
There were also things we never could have expected. Every time someone entered the house, for example, Lucy immediately peed on the floor. This lasted for years. As each doorbell ring brought a renewed frenzy of gating Lucy, warning bewildered guests not to make eye contact with her, and, often, breaking out a fresh bottle of Resolve, I imagine my parents couldn’t help but wonder: would their lives have been a lot easier if they’d never gotten Lucy in the first place?
A new device is, in many ways, like a new dog.2 There are likely a number of benefits, both for you and your child. There are also downsides, including new rules to enforce and safety issues to consider. How to weigh these pros and cons is, ultimately, up to you.
It’s easy to be judgmental here. Dog-lovers cannot imagine a scenario where one would forgo canine companionship simply to avoid dealing with tail-grabbing toddlers. Others can’t imagine what propels someone to bring home a puppy when the alternative is to just…not.
With tech decisions, it feels like the volume of other parents’ judgements are set to an even higher decibel. If we choose to forgo pre-smartphone devices for our kids, we are total luddites, idiotically dismissing new technology like Larry David in that super bowl commercial. If we choose to get the devices, we are, of course, soulless, tech-pushing satanists.
Like much of tech parenting, this is an area where reasonable people, all of whom care deeply about their kids, can make different decisions. For some, the idea of getting their 8-year-old a device is akin to getting them an espresso machine—they don’t need it, they’re way too young for it, and it might have unpleasant side effects. For others, juggling the daily circus act of school pickups and extracurricular activities, a simple communication device feels like the right solution for coordinating changes in plans and getting in touch quickly.
Families are different. Kids are different. Circumstances and preferences and values are different. That’s okay. Let’s not judge each other.
What kinds of devices are we talking about?
We’re focusing here on three types of devices: kid smartwatches, flip phones, and kid smartphones.3 I’ll call these “pre-smartphone devices.” There are, of course, less portable devices your tween child might have access to (tablets or iPads, laptops, desktop computers), but those involve slightly different considerations.
Was there anything more satisfying in the early 2000s than finishing up a conversation and slamming your RAZR shut?4 Flip phones are no longer, shall we say, cool, but they do still exist, and for some kids, are a good non-smartphone option. For the most part, they allow only calls and texting (specifically, the thumb-numbing T9 kind), but no group texting.
These phones, like the Gabb Z2, look like smartphones, but their features are much more limited. For example, most kid smartphones (also called “dumb” phones) have no browser or app store, which means no social media, no YouTube, no games, no websites.5 They typically allow texting (including group texts) and calls, and in most cases have a camera and music-listening capabilities.
Kid smartwatches, like the GizmoWatch6, are designed for kids age 5 to 10. In most cases, feature are extremely limited. Think: accepting calls only from pre-approved numbers (i.e., you), pairing to your smartphone so you can track their location, and sending pre-set text message (e.g., “I’m ready to get picked up”). Many offer an (important) feature to put the watch on “do not disturb” during certain times of day.
So, will they ruin my child? What does the research tell us?
Let’s start with the punchline: it doesn’t tell us much.
Although research documents potential benefits of kids’ smartwatches (e.g., promoting physical activity, supporting parent-child communication), there’s not much data showing that these benefits actually play out. (In fact, one review shows that wearables have no effect on physical activity in kids).
There’s no solid evidence that getting a pre-smartphone device for your tween is harmful, but there’s also no solid evidence that it’s harmless.
What about studies looking at the age that kids get their first smartphones? Could we take these studies and infer something about the right age (and potential harms) of introducing a new device? Not really. There are very few of these studies. The ones we do have tend to use cross-sectional or retrospective designs (like this one), and show no differences in outcomes between kids who got smartphones earlier versus later.
But this is a classic study design issue. Kids who get smartphones earlier likely differ from those who get them later—in terms of family setup, maturity, socioeconomic status, etc. We can’t say much without a randomized controlled trial that assigns some kids to get phones and other not to. As far as I’m aware, this study doesn’t exist.
We do have a bit of evidence on earlier initiation of social media, specifically, which suggests that there are benefits to waiting to introduce it. For example, this study (full summary here), which shows that social media has a more negative effect on kids’ happiness at younger ages. And these cross-sectional studies showing that younger social media users encounter more online risks, like harassment, and get less sleep. But these (limited) studies tell us about social media, not about pre-smartphone devices, which in almost all cases won’t have social media on them.
The Bottom Line
We don’t have enough data to say confidently that pre-smartphone devices (kid smartwatches, flip phones) are totally harmless. We also don’t have any data that they’re bad. It is extremely unlikely that getting a device will “ruin your kid,” or have serious long-term negative effects, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for everyone.
This leaves us right back in our age-old Techno Sapien parent conundrum: in the absence of good data, what do we do?
Right, so…what do I do?
First, let’s think about the pros and cons. These will differ for each family, but they might include:
Safety. Knowing your kid can call or text you if they’re in trouble, need to be picked up, or have some other concern. Some kids’ smartwatches also have GPS, which some parents find useful for knowing where their kids are (other parents find this creepy).7
Communication. Being able to easily contact your child if plans change or you’re running late to pick them up, for example. As adults living in the digital age, our lives are often organized around the fact that we can get in touch with people last-minute (i.e., plans change, things get canceled, etc.). Some parents strongly value this convenience.
Practice. Though I’m not aware of any evidence directly supporting this, it seems reasonable that pre-smartphone devices would serve as “training wheels,” allowing kids to practice digital safety, healthy tech habits, and responsibility before moving on to the “real thing.” Relatedly, they may prompt important conversations about your family’s tech values and habits.
Can of Worms. Like Lucy, a new device brings a whole new set of challenges. Some parents do not feel up to the added monitoring, rule-enforcing, and general brain power that a new device will likely require.
Overuse and Distraction. There may be a risk that your child uses the device more than you want them to, or at times that you don’t want them to. I don’t use the word “addiction” here because the chances of addiction-like behavior seem extremely low to me with this type of device, particularly if (as is true of many of these devices) it has no social media, games, notifications, or video-watching capabilities. However, if, for example, your 12-year-old has a pre-smartphone device through which they can text their friends, screen time limits are going to be relevant.
Safety. This will depend on the features of the device. On certain devices, you may run the risk of your child talking to someone you don’t want them to (if you can’t approve contacts) or taking pictures of things they shouldn’t be (if it has a camera).
Childhood Innocence. Not surprisingly, there is no data on this. But I think it’s important to name this common sentiment—that kids will lose a certain childhood innocence as soon as a device is introduced. This feeling may be more prevalent among parents of kids at the younger end of the tween range. Kids will have many, many years of their lives to own devices, the argument goes, so why do they need to start now? Does a child really need to be constantly in contact with their parents (or others)?
What else do I need to know?
The tween stage is broad. What works for an 8-year-old probably won’t work for a 12-year-old.
If you’re thinking about getting one of these devices and wondering how to sort through the options, I’d suggest starting by thinking about what features you want (and don’t want) for your child. This will likely vary based on their age and maturity.
Generally, the options for features include: Calling, Texting, Group texts, Camera, GPS, Games, Music, and Parent Controls (e.g., managing kid’s contact list).
Each device will have a different combination of these features.
Kid smartwatches have been designed for tweens at the younger end of the spectrum, but some contain features I’d be wary of young kids having on their person at all times (i.e., games, voice recording, and cameras).
Kid smartphones may be a good option for older tweens, but because they have no app store or browser, they will not be able to access school-related apps or email.
Flip phones are simple, sturdy, and last a long time on a single charge. A few downsides: no group texting (a dealbreaker for older tweens) and (for some) highly embarrassing to use in public when your peers have smartphones. Also, some popular flip phones (e.g., the Alcatel SmartFlip) come pre-loaded with Google Assistant, so your kid would have unmonitored access to YouTube. This, in my mind, defeats the purpose of a flip phone.
Here’s a handy chart from an excellent WireCutter review of devices for kids. The GizmoWatch, TickTalk, and Apple Watch are all kid smartwatches. The Gabb Z2 is a kid smartphone. The Alcatel is a flip phone.
No matter what device you get, you’ll want to set up clear rules and expectations. At this age, kids will need a lot of scaffolding around what’s allowed, what’s not allowed, and why. Examples guardrail might include:
Your kid will only wear the smartwatch at certain times of day
They can call you but no one else
You’ll keep an eye on the texts they send
You’ll approve any contacts they add
You’ll get the device for a pre-determined “trial period,” see how it goes, and revisit in a few weeks
Whether you’re adamant about avoiding pre-smartphone devices, racing to the Verizon store right now, or, as I suspect most of us are, somewhere in the middle, remember that this is your decision—independent of anyone else’s judgements, ideas, or opinions.
For some, cleaning up a dog pee-stained carpet three times per day is a downside they’d rather not take on. For others, the joy of one day introducing your grandchild to your 17-year-old cockapoo is a benefit that outweighs any prior challenges.
That decision is up to you.
We hear a lot about teens but probably not enough about “tweens” — the age between childhood and adolescence. This is often when kids (girls, in particular) start puberty. I’m reminded of my fifth-grade teacher, who adorned a deodorant bottle with a superhero cape, named it “Dr. Deo,” and deemed it our class mascot. I now recognize this as a desperate attempt to make his job (and classroom air quality) slightly more bearable. We don’t deserve teachers, truly.
Anyway, there’s a lot going on in the tween years. There’s no formal definition for what counts as a “tween” (or “pre-teen”), but generally, it’s around 8 or 9 through 12. I’ve expanded the age range down to 7 for this post because some of the device considerations do begin at that earlier age.
The dog-device analogy is obviously not perfect. Generally, the device decision is very easily reversible, whereas reversing the dog decision is more complicated. Also, the types of benefits of each clearly differ. Your family is unlikely to develop a 17-year, loving relationship with your child’s smartwatch, in which you continue to take it for walks even when it’s too old to make it more than a block or two, forcing you to pick it up and carry it around the neighborhood (see above).
As noted above, I highly recommend this WireCutter review if you’d like to read about the pros and cons of specific devices. Though I also understand if you, like me, have spent too many hours trawling the pages of WireCutter, trying to optimize every parent purchasing decision from formula to strollers, and you just can’t anymore.
I’d argue that early-2000s TV dramas were at least 30% better due to the possibility for flip phone-slamming dramatic flair. PS - here’s an entire Reddit thread on this topic in relation to our old friend, The O.C. As Minoman92 writes, “Watching the gang express their teenage angst through the forceful clicking shut of their flip phones, is making me want a resurgence of flip phones.”
An unexpected side effect of writing this post is that I am now considering getting myself a kid smartphone. Seems like a good way to reduce distractions! My one reservation is the lack of Google maps. I have flashbacks to once trying to drive somewhere in high school (pre-smartphone), and getting so violently lost that I pulled over to the side of the road, turned off the car, and just sat there. This is where I live now, I thought. I eventually called my parents, who were somehow able to direct me home, but the memory (clearly) stuck with me.
Has anyone tried getting themselves a kid smartphone? How do you drive places? Please report back.
After researching this post, I’ve been flooded with ads for kid smartwatches on Instagram. One contains a perfectly coiffed mom and her young, blonde child, performing a choreographed TikTok dance while pointing to various popup texts on the screen, like “Protect your kids!” Send help.
The idea of location tracking one’s kids is polarizing. Interestingly, kids are increasingly comfortable with the idea of using location tracking to facilitate meeting up (e.g., SnapMap, Find my Friends), so, for better or worse, the “creepiness” factor may be eroding. For some parents, location tracking feels like an invasion of their kids’ privacy. For others, it’s a convenient way to keep track of where their kids are without requiring constant communication. I see both sides of this argument. In general, if parents are going to do this, it works better with younger (rather than older) tweens and should be part of an ongoing conversation about why and how you’re doing it (no spying).