My son is 22 months old, and his favorite toy is my iPhone X. I hide it everywhere: behind stuffed animals, between books, in potted plants. He finds it every time and toddles up to me, clutching it in his tiny fist and wailing, “Melmo. Melmo, pease. Melmo. Melmo, pease.” “Melmo” is how he says “Elmo,” and what he wants is to watch Sesame Street videos on YouTube. When I say no, he crumples onto the floor and weeps.

It could be worse, I think. Last month, it was “Gangnam Style.”

Until fairly recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that parents avoid showing children under 2 screens of any kind, including TV, iPads, or cell phones. (In 2016, it slightly eased the guidelines.) My husband and I violated this rule a long time ago. I don’t remember when we first cradled an iPhone before his face, but over the last few months, we’ve watched in horror as my son has developed a full-blown addiction to phones, long before he’s even old enough to own one.

Over the last decade, much has been written about the great screen time debate: how often should our children be exposed to screens, and at what age? As recently as October 2018, the New York Times published a feature that painted a dark vision of kids and screens, with a quote from a Facebook executive assistant saying that “the devil” lurks in our devices.

After reading the New York Times story, my husband and I went into complete panic mode and instituted a rule in our house where no one is allowed to give our son a phone. For the time being, this has kept the devil at bay. Still, I know there will come a time when I will succumb to the inevitable and buy my son his first phone. The prospect already makes me anxious.

Many adults will agree that giving their a child a phone is also part and parcel of being a responsible parent in 2018.

According to a 2015 Pew Research report, 73 percent of kids between the ages of 13 and 17 have their own phone, while a 2017 Nielsen survey indicates that nearly 45 percent of kids get their own cell phone plan between the ages of 10 and 12. Stephen Balkam, the CEO of the tech-industry backed nonprofit Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) says that in connected households (i.e. households that have more than three devices), kids get their first tablet when they are 5.5 years old, and their first phone at the age of 7.

These days, many parents are “putting tech in kids’ hands as soon as they can hold them,” declares Dr. Jim Taylor, author of the book Raising Generation Tech. But when it comes to what kinds of phones parents should actually buy their kids, the market offers very few options: There is no iPhone equivalent for children, and there never has been. For the most part, kids are stuck with their parents’ hand-me-down smartphones, and the onus is on the parent to install the necessary parental controls.

So, why hasn’t Silicon Valley successfully made a phone for children? And if it did, what would such a device actually look like?


Though parents are often shamed for using screens to distract their kids or supervise them by proxy, many adults will agree that giving their a child a phone is also part and parcel of being a responsible parent in 2018. “The main things I hear from parents are: we want to be able to contact them; we want them to be able to contact us; and we want to be able to track them, GPS-wise,” Balkam says.

Ideally, a smart phone for kids should be as MacGyver-proof as possible: “maybe [it would have] some way to text if there is a school emergency or some other type of emergency, or not allow them to turn off their GPS or delete texts,” says Joshua Cole, a father of three and owner of the consulting firm One World Partners. Cole’s 11-year-old daughter currently has an iPhone 7 Plus. Others suggest that such a device should be social media-free. “‘No photo, no internet’ is the thing we kept hearing from parents,” says Joe Hollier, the co-founder of the Brooklyn-based startup Light. Without a camera or connectivity, kids are unable to take selfies or engage with social media — two activities parents are desperate to control.

Although tablets have been successfully marketed to children, including the Amazon Fire HD Kids Edition and the Samsung Galaxy Tab E Lite Kids Edition, efforts to develop smartphones for children have almost universally failed. John Biggs, a father of two and a contributing writer for the website TechCrunch, puts it rather uncharitably: “I’ve seen a lot of [cell phones for kids] over the years and they’re all junk.”

In 2014, the kids’ tech company KD Interactive released the Kurio Android smartphone, which was designed to “operate and look just like an adult smartphone, but with safety features and usage limits to cover all eventualities,” Tracey Devine, the marketing and licensing director of KD UK, told New Atlas at the time. While fairly bland-looking, the phone had everything an anxious parent could have wanted: it blocked 450 million websites, allowed parents to remotely view texts and call logs, and provided time limits on apps long before Apple introduced similar features. It even included a customizable “in case of emergency” form, featuring the child’s allergy information and blood type. And in 2017, VTech, a Hong Kong-based toy company, announced the KidiBuzz, a smartphone for kids between the ages of 4 and 9 that allows kids to send and receive texts, photos, and voice messages.

“I’ve seen a lot of [cell phones for kids] over the years and they’re all junk.”

The Kurio was a marvelous flop: KD Interactive Kurio abandoned its kids smartphone the same year it was released. “The unit was expensive to manufacture, but as it was not ‘branded’, it could not be sold at a ‘proper price.’… it was not Apple or Samsung, and the age group the phone was aimed at (pre-tweens/tweens) is very brand/look-conscious,” said a company-associated spokesperson for Kurio said via email. Meanwhile, the KidiBuzz has 33 percent one-star reviews on Amazon, with one commenter noting that it “doesn’t even make a nice paperweight.”

Part of the issue with child-focused smartphones is functionality: many of these devices occupy an amorphous gray space between a toy and tool. The KidiBuzz, for instance, offers features like games and apps, but doesn’t even let users place calls. Parents searching for “smart phones for kids” on Amazon might also run into dozens upon dozens of non-functional play phone items — devices that look like phones but are actually toys that come equipped with various ringtones and flashing lights.

Another added challenge is that products marketed as “kid-friendly” have a built-in expiration date. “There’s not a lot of activity going on in the child-specific space, because it just doesn’t scale well,” says Tuong Nguyen, a senior principal analyst for the consulting firm Gartner. “You’re talking about a very small segment of it: children ages 4 to 8 or 8 to 12, etc. And it’s potentially even smaller than that, because at a certain age I don’t think children want the ‘special device.’ They want the same device you’re using.”

By and large, “the reality is that the devices people want to use are the devices coming from the big manufacturers,” said David Weissmann, a spokesperson for Verizon. “So why build something that’s purpose-built and a single model of the device when you could basically take any manufacturer’s design and use [a parental controls] app to help control it?”


Still, there’s real anxiety around giving developing children access to devices that are nothing short of addictive to grown adults. And more research has emerged linking excessive screen time to, among other things, depression, reduced sleep, and speech delay in infants. All that has pushed a handful of entrepreneurs to create alternative solutions for children.

The main problem with giving kids iPhones, says Hollier, is that, “for lack of a better term, it’s such a sexy, glossy device: ‘Oh, what can I do? I wanna download an app. I wanna open the internet.’ That’s almost inherent to the phone. I feel it even myself in my smartphone. It’s a very powerful thing.”

Hollier co-created the Light Phone, a device marketed as the anti-iPhone. The first iteration of the Light Phone was meant to be used as little as possible: it could place calls, and basically nothing else. (The forthcoming Light Phone 2 will also let users text.) It’s one of a handful of entries in the minimalist, or “dumb” phone movement, which was spurred by a growing concern about smartphone dependency.

While not intended for children, the Light Phone has gotten a great deal of attention from parents. “Parents struggle with this dilemma: they want a phone so their child can contact them in an emergency, but Snapchat really scares them,” Hollier says.

“They are little humans, and I prefer to respect them when it comes to tech.”

The Jitterbug, which features a large screen and large type, is another dumb phone frequently cited as a good option for kids — even though it was initially developed for seniors. The Jitterbug can place calls and send and receive texts; at less than $50 for the flip phone version, it’s also considerably cheaper than the Light Phone 2, which has not shipped out yet but is currently priced at $300.

Some manufacturers are bypassing phones altogether by entering the wearables market. Verizon’s GizmoWatch, for instance, allows parents to track their kids’ location and provides alerts when they venture outside a specific radius; it also lets kids text and make calls to up to 10 people on a preprogrammed contact list, allowing parents to stay in touch with their kids while curbing their screen time.

While not technically a wearable (though you can hook it to clothes with a carabiner-like accessory), the Relay, a walkie-talkie-esque device from Republic Wireless, is an additional entry in the kids’ tech space. The device presents itself as a middle ground for less tech-savvy parents who are concerned about screen time, but don’t want to navigate the complex world of parental control apps: “there’s no way to watch a bad YouTube video or search for something inappropriate with the Relay, because there’s no screen,” says Republic Wireless CEO Chris Chuang.

But devices like the Relay and the GizmoWatch also look like exactly what they are: products for kids. And that may be a problem, says Nguyen. “There’s always some potential [with wearables], but I’m a little reluctant to say they’re gonna be a big seller,” says Nguyen. “The demand compared to alternative options is such that the impact tends to be fairly limited: I can get my child a child smartwatch, which they may or may not wear, or I can give them a phone.”

Taylor is similarly skeptical. Smart watches, he says, “are not gonna replace phones for kids. Kids want more. They’re bombarded with messaging to stay connected constantly. This is the world kids are growing up in.”

Without better alternatives, parents are largely stuck passing off their worn out iPhones or Androids or buying an old smartphone, which still costs hundreds of dollars. “There’s just a certain comfort level there because that’s what we’ve [mom and dad] have always used,” says Heather Brewer, an author and illustrator who bought both of her children iPhones and uses Apple’s Parental Controls. “Handing down our old phones is low-cost and the parental controls work fairly well.” Biggs, who also gave both of his kids iPhones, agrees: “Kids aren’t some special animal that require special tools when it comes to phones. They are little humans, and I prefer to respect them when it comes to tech.”

And rather than creating new products, manufacturers have begun adding features to make their adult-oriented products more kid-friendly. Apple’s new iOS 12 parental controls include a Screen Time feature, which allows you to set time limits for specific apps and track how much time they’re spending on their phones. Google has introduced Google Family Link, a free app that allows parents to track their kids’ screen time as well as remotely lock their devices if they’re spending too much time using them.

These software work-arounds aren’t perfect — kids are reportedly hacking Apple’s Screen Time simply by changing the time setting on their device — but they’re a recognition that kids of a certain age want to own the same thing everyone else has. And if everyone else has an iPhone or an Android, many won’t settle for anything less.

But ultimately the anxiety parents feel around what sorts of devices to buy their children and when may also be a means of projecting anxieties about our own complicated relationships with phones. The answer may not be finding the right device for our kids, but wrangling our own impulses, especially because some researchers say that parents who are overly distracted by their devices are creating behavioral issues in their children.

“Kids will do what you do, not what you tell them to do,” Balkam says. “You have to model good digital habits.” In fact, a 2016 Common Sense Media study found that although 78 percent of parents thought they were modeling good screen habits for their kids, they were spending an average of nine hours per day with their screens — far more time than their kids were.

When I noticed that I was spending far more time scrolling through my email and Twitter than I was playing on the floor with my son, I realized that the problem wasn’t with screens warping his fragile mind. It was that I’d already allowed my phone to warp mine. So these days, my husband and I try not to use our phones at all in front of our son. Not because I think the devil lives in my iPhone, but because I think, to some extent, a small part of the devil lives in me.