Because I'm not 100% certain this is the best route (but I'm fairly confident), I'm sharing our approach to solve a growing need to communicate with our seven year old.
I know, I know, that's super young. I don't want the answer to this need to be a phone (because Internet). I'm even averse to it being an Apple Watch, because an Apple Watch offers more distractions and complexity than I have an appetite for. But after much research we're going with an Apple Watch using Apple's Family Member feature. I've never used it before, so here's how we got to this, the expectations we set with her, and how it's setup with Verizon.
Scenarios that are a growing frustration
- Playing at neighbors' houses and wanting her to come home, especially when plans are changing. We had been doing this by calling or emailing the parents, but it'd be nicer to not bug them.
- Oftentimes I want my kid come back home in "30 minutes" or "an hour", and kids aren't very reliable with remembering that sort of thing. But a smart assistant like Siri is.
- Coordinating school pickup as soon as she leaves her classroom. (Location, maybe to look for a different car, walk home with neighbors, etc.)
- We don't want to encourage more device usage. She already has an iPad that is fairly locked down. (No Safari, only approved apps allowed, no YouTube or YouTube Kids.) Small screens are great for small tasks, and a watch is naturally not conducive to long usage sessions. ⌚️
- We don't want to encourage texting with friends. Family Member setup allows the Organizers to have control of the Contacts on all devices. So only family members for now. ✌️
- Distractions. This will be something we monitor closely. The Family Member setup is already fairly quiet from notifications, but I removed other notifications like Breathing reminders (she's seven folks). Right now, she is looking at her time a LOT, but it's not any different than any shiny new toy in the past that she's been excited about.
- Will the school allow it? Who knows! She may be the first person in her 2nd grade class to have a watch, so we'll see. I wrote a note to her teacher, and we also enabled Schooltime which is a super cool feature the Organizers can manage remotely in Screen Time settings. You just set a start and end time for school, and the watch is dumbed down to a time-only face during those hours.
Other device options
Yes an Apple Watch is pretty expensive, especially if you shop around for this type of use case for children. We looked at a Gabb Wireless phone for kids, but there are a few reasons we decided against it:
- It's outside of our software ecosystem of iOS and macOS. So things like texting would be SMS instead of iMessage. It probably wouldn't be HomeKit compatible (easily anyway). Photo management would be a whole new thing, and she wouldn't have easy access to our iCloud albums. Oh and we wouldn't be able to use Find My for her. For a family already full of iPads, iPhones, and AirTags, it's a big miss to need an additional app.
- Not only is the ecosystem compatibility an issue, but add the inherent iOS knowledgebase in our family for troubleshooting, best practices, and habits. She'd be starting from a blank slate, and in our family I would be the one doing a lot of Google searches to find answers.
- Also, a decent reliable device like this costs $$100-200, similiar to used Apple Watch Series 4 or newer. (Family Member's minimum device requirement.) And the Gabb Wireless monthly service starts(!) at $22. See below.
I didn't realize this would be the easiest part. You know the $10/mo cost for cellular service on an Apple Watch? It's the exact same cost for a new Apple Watch line. Pretty straight forward here.
Setting up cellular service is handled by the Watch app during setup, but in my experience you've got a 50/50 chance of that working. I ended up having to call Verizon to activate.
As for family rules and expectations, this can obviously vary widely from house to house (and even child to child), but succinctly, here's how it's going in our house:
- She's getting a watch/phone number because we need her to have one to communciate with her.
- The device is like anything else she's received in her life like a BB gun or a glue gun: the responsibility she shows will determine the guardrails we create.
- She can only communicate with those we approve. (Managed through Family Member's iCloud Contacts.)
- The Watch is on the charger at 7:30pm every night. The charger is in our bedroom.
It really is as simple as it sounds, and both my wife an I are very pleased. Ten bucks a month is a bargain for what we're gaining in family communication. Apple's Screen Time has come a long way in allowing us to keep that device's feature set fairly limited. So the risks are much lower, and configurable, than they used to be even a year ago. The hope is that she can be more independent with managing her time. And we can use energy (trying) to be better parents.