Picking a Starter Phone for Your Kid

What will it be? A kid-specific device, a basic cell phone, or a smartphone?

By Jacqueline Emigh

When it’s time for a kid to get a starter phone, parents face the tough task of choosing the right device. The child’s age and social maturity are important factors, of course, but so are the reasons you're buying the phone in the first place. Parents naturally want to keep their kids safe and secure, while kids generally want a phone for communicating with other people and exploring the world around them.

Here are some thoughts on age-appropriate starter phones that can meet the needs of parents and kids. We'll look at devices in three different categories: kid-specific phones, basic phones, and smartphones. Smartphones and basic phones aren't as safe as kid-specific phones, but they give children more freedom—and parents can add various protective measures through parental control apps or phone management programs provided by wireless carriers.

Kid-Specific Phones

A few phone models are specifically designed for kids under the age of 12 and others who might have trouble with conventional phones, such as seniors. These phones tend to offer limited voice and text calling capabilities, simple operation, and special safety features such as programmable calling buttons and unique gizmos for use during an emergency.

Examples of phones in this category include the Kisa, from the Australian-based company of the same name, and the WeGo. from Sprint. The Kisa (pictured at the top of this article) has a big, bright screen with a few large, square buttons on the front. One buttons is for starting calls, and another is for ending them. The other buttons let the user display the names and/or photos of people associated with ten preprogrammed numbers, for easy calling. There are no limits on incoming calls.

An SOS button on the back connects to emergency services. The Kisa comes with a lanyard (for wearing the device around the neck) and a charging cradle. The screen isn’t a touchscreen, and the Kisa doesn’t support texting or photography.

The WeGo allows parents to specify up to 20 numbers for inbound and outbound phone calling. The child can also receive SMS text messages from the same specified numbers, and send "predetermined" text messages from a list of 50 options. These include "yes," "no," "I'm at home," "I'm at school," and "I don't feel well," for instance.

Among the WeGo's many other features are a web management portal for parents, the ability to locate the child's phone on an interactive map, and a panic alarm, which the child can activate by pulling a tether string. The phone can also send text alerts to parents such as "panic alarm pulled," “low battery alarm,” and “device powered down.”

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But the safety features on any phone can only go so far. Most of them are useless if the child loses the phone, or if the phone gets turned off, or if the battery runs down.

Still, kid-specific phones can be convenient, especially for very young children. If a kid is waiting at the playground for a ride home, Dad can send a text message—or better yet, call the child—to explain that he got delayed at work and will be there in 15 minutes.

Also, little kids can easily get lost if they stray into a strange neighborhood. A kid who can't reliably remember his parents' phone numbers can certainly push a panic button to get help from home.

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Overall, though, the ranks of kid-specific phones have been dwindling lately. While the Kurio smartphone for kids and the Firefly glowPhone can still be purchased at various places on the web, both models have been discontinued.

Kurio is currently focusing solely on kid-friendly tablets. Firefly Mobile recently introduced new non-kid-specific smartphones.

Basic Phones

The term "basic phone" refers to traditional flip phone and clamshell cell phones that don't run a smartphone operating system such as Google’s Android or Apple’s iOS.

By the time kids reach middle-school age, many of them want to text with their friends. Parents shouldn't take this wish lightly. After all, kids, like grownups, want to feel comfortable socially, and a basic phone can be a good tool for addressing social requirements. Besides handling voice calling and SMS text messaging, such phones generally offer limited web access.

Because basic phones don't support Android or iOS, however, they don't run the millions of apps available from Google Play or Apple's App Store—including apps that might be risky for kids. On the other hand, they also can't run Android and iOS parental control apps such as Norton Family Premier, Qustodio, Net Nanny, and Mobicip.

All four major U.S. wireless carriers—AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile—offer parental management programs that can be used with basic phones as well as with smartphones. The programs differ in some particulars, but all of them allow parents to block texts and phone calls from certain numbers, set time limits on when kids can text or call, filter website content, and use GPS tracking to find the physical location of the phone.

You might also want to check out a prepaid carrier called Kajeet, which runs a BYOD (bring your own device) program for many Sprint phones, including some older models. Under this program, parents can use a set of management tools created by Kajeet (which is different from Sprint Mobile Controls) upon purchasing one of Kajeet's low-cost prepaid calling plans for kids.

Kajeet's program might be a good way for your family to repurpose old phones. If Big Sister is about to upgrade to a new phone from Sprint, maybe Little Sister wouldn't mind acquiring the old phone as a hand-me-down. (Then again, maybe she would).

Texting tends to be more difficult from a typical basic phone than from a smartphone because of the basic phone's small, nontouch screen. If you're interested in buying a text-friendly basic phone for your kid, one possibility is the LG Cosmos 3 from Verizon. It comes with a four-line slide-out QWERTY keyboard.

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Smartphones

Maybe your kid's friends are using web chat apps rather than old-fashioned SMS texting, or maybe the child wants to use other kinds of apps—for photo editing, music creation, or cooking—to support a hobby.

Can it make sense for a preteen to get a smartphone as a smarter phone? Yes, especially if the child already has smartphone experience from borrowing Android phones or iPhones from family members. (We've seen one-year-olds who can answer the phone—without necessarily being able to say "hello"—and who can press app icons on their parents' iPhones.) In some jurisdictions, schools are beginning to offer curriculum that requires smartphone access in the classroom for full participation.

You'll have to offer your child guidance, though. Because they provide the full run of the web and all existing apps, smartphones can expose kids to creepy content and bullying behaviors. Some apps display children's precise locations to strangers, too.

You should engage in an ongoing dialogue with your child about these issues. You might also want to exert stronger parental controls than those available through wireless carriers. In addition to the apps already mentioned, MM Guardian (for Android and iOS) and Family Protector (for iOS only) provide effective parental controls.

Photo credits: Kisa, Sprint, LG USA.