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.