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Smartphone alternatives for kids and teens
What are the options?
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5 min read
I got my first cellphone when I was 14. The only things I remember about it were that it was light blue, plasticky, and small enough to fit into the tiny pockets of some horrifically low-rise jeans. I also remember, in the days before T9, spending many hours furiously thumbing the multi-tap keyboard.1 Despite the fact that a simple “see ya” required an astonishing 13 clicks, the phone soon became a centerpiece of my (minimal) teenage social life.
Fast-forward two decades, and phone options have evolved a bit.
What do we know about smartphones?
As of 2021, 42% of kids own a smartphone by age 10, and 91% have one by age 14.
We don’t have great data on the risks (or benefits) of early smartphone access. That’s because kids who get smartphones earlier likely differ from those who get them later on other dimensions, like family setup, maturity, and socioeconomic status. We can’t say much about the effects of early smartphone access without a randomized controlled trial that assigns some kids to get phones and others not to. As far as I’m aware, this data doesn’t exist.
We do, however, have some data on one specific aspect of smartphone use: social media. And the early evidence suggests there may be benefits to waiting to introduce it. For example, this study (full summary here) shows that social media has a more negative effect on kids’ happiness at younger ages. And some cross-sectional studies show that younger social media users encounter more online risks, like harassment, and get less sleep, compared to older teen users.
For that reason, many parents are starting to consider their options. Are there phones out there that don’t allow for social media? Can we salvage some of the simplicity of those blue, plasticky, early 2000s devices (without the accompanying horror of low-rise jeans)?
Enter: the dumbphone
The good news is that there are lots of phones available that can serve as alternatives to smartphones.2 Because we techno sapiens are cool and hip and most definitely not the type of people who like to reminisce about multi-tap keyboards, we will use the terminology of teens themselves and call these alternatives “dumbphones.”
These dumbphones tend to vary in terms of their features. A good starting place when deciding on the right smartphone alternative for your child (or yourself) may be to consider which features you do and don’t want. Common options include:
Parent controls (e.g., managing child’s contact list, tracking location, etc.)
You may also want to consider factors like cost, durability, and whether the phone is compatible with your existing mobile carrier.
So, what are my options?
There are two general categories of dumbphones:
Option 1: Basic Phones
These are simple, sturdy phones without a touchscreen. The illustrious flip phone falls into this category. Typically, these allow only calls and texts (some with an option for group texting), and sometimes they have cameras. Watch out for seemingly simple flip phones that come preloaded with Google Assistant (and, therefore, YouTube).
Pros: durable, last a long time on a single charge, no distracting Internet or apps (usually)
Cons: no parental controls, limited flexibility, potential for embarrassment if you are a teen whose peers have smartphones
Option 2: “Minimalist” or Kid-Friendly Smartphones
These phones generally look like smartphones, but have fewer features (i.e., no Internet browser or app store), and in some cases, more parental control options. Typically, they allow calls and texts and have a camera and music. They sometimes allow for parent-approved apps.
Pros: look like smartphones (i.e., less embarrassment), more features than basic phones, parent control options
Cons: more potential for distraction, may still lack some desired features of smartphones (e.g., access to school-related apps or email; video chat)
Gabb Phone. A kid-friendly smartphone with no Internet, no social media, and no games. It allows for texting, calling, photos, music (via the “Gabb Music” app, which costs extra), and GPS location tracking.
Pinwheel Phone. Another kid-friendly smartphone, also with no Internet or social media, but with texts, calls, photos, music, and GPS location tracking. Offers more flexibility than the Gabb, as parents can pre-approve downloads of certain “safe” apps like Spotify, GoogleMaps, and Khan Academy. Allows parents to customize which apps can be used during which times of day, and to monitor texts.
Bark Phone. A newer, kid-friendly smartphone option, which is actually just a Samsung Galaxy with lots of parental controls built-in. This one has Internet, but allows parents to block certain websites and apps. It also offers Bark’s parent control tech to monitor kids’ activity across apps and texts, set screen time limits, and remotely lock the phone.
Light Phone. This one is a little different—it’s somewhere between a basic phone and a smartphone, and it’s been marketed to adults more than kids. It offers: calls, texts, an alarm clock, a basic music/podcast player, and a stripped-down directions tool (i.e., instead of GoogleMaps). The electronic paper screen looks more like a Kindle than a phone.3
The more things change
Things have changed somewhat since I was 14.4 Social media has become ubiquitous. Texting requires far fewer finger taps. The options for mobile devices have exploded, from the most complex of smartphones, to the most basic of flip phones, and everything in between.
Yet some things seem never to change. That first phone is still an important milestone. Staying connected via devices remains a centerpiece of teens’ social lives. Parents just want what they’ve always wanted—for their teens to be safe and happy.
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The whole concept of the multi-tap keyboard is almost unfathomable now. Pressing the “7” button four times just to get a single “s”?! Can you imagine? The fact that we spent so many hours texting each other using this technology is a true testament to teen resilience.
Note that another alternative is to get your child a smartphone, but not to allow social media. This seems obvious, but it’s an option that’s easy to forget about. It is possible to get your child a smartphone and, through a combination of setting clear rules and using parent controls (i.e., requiring approval of app downloads, blocking certain websites), hold off on social media. For a quick guide to parent controls, see this post.
Reviewing these options has made me once again consider whether I should make the switch to a dumbphone. Have any techno sapiens done this and stuck with it? Have any done this and then gone back to a smartphone? Please enlighten us!
I was 14 in 2002. Just to paint a picture, some other things popular at that time include: listening to the song Lose Yourself by Eminem, watching the first season of American Idol (winner: Kelly Clarkson), and talking about Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears’ recent breakup.
I know, I know. There are maybe too many references to low-rise jeans in this post. But really? Must we go down this road again? Here, for example, is the “Low Rise 90s Baggy Jean” from Abercrombie & Fitch, a brand which, against all odds, is also somehow cool again. Just looking at these pants, I can practically smell the A&F classic perfume that was surely being pumped through the ventilation system in those mall stores. Ah, memories.