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The Screentime Consultant: On “child-friendly” devices

Ask: Why are we giving our child the device in the first place?

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The Screentime Consultant, Emily Cherkin, MEd

The world today feels like a scary and dangerous place.

But in general, and with a few exceptions, life for most kids in America is not actually as dangerous as our clickbait headlines and social media feeds make us think– at least, not when it comes to kidnapping by strangers, which Pew Research recently found was the #3 parental fear in America.

Statistically speaking, the odds of a child getting kidnapped by a stranger are statistically extremely rare (by one account, you’d have to leave your kid outside for 750,000 years before you could guarantee they’d be kidnapped).

So why is there such fear around such an unlikely scenario?

Because parental anxiety is exacerbated by 24/7 news cycles and social media mayhem, very little of which is rooted in evidence or fact or truth.

In response to this (perceived) threat, parents turn to the tool that has been heavily marketed as the “solution” for keeping kids safe in the digital age: the smartphone.

Where children then encounter cyberbullying, predators, and porn.

Somewhat ironically, the #1 and #2 parental fears in America (again, according to Pew) are youth mental health and cyberbullying, two very real, very prevalent experiences – made much, much worse by owning a smartphone.


Parents, in their effort to keep kids safe from kidnapping (an extremely low risk), give their kids smartphones where they can access content that is more likely to erode their mental health or make them targets of cyberbullying (very high risk).

What’s so bad about the devices themselves?

There is a growing trend among families, especially those with younger children, who see a smartwatch as a safe precursor to the smartphone. Additionally, simplified versions of smartphones are now available from companies such as Bark, Pinwheel, Troomi, and Gabb.

These “child-friendly” smartphones purport to offer a safer phone experience by offering streamlined platforms, providing content filters, limiting apps or social media, or allowing parents to track their children’s location—though their capabilities vary wildly depending on the device and plan.

As I constantly tell parents, if you have one of these tools and it works for your family, great.

Like other forms of parental controls, however, they also come with some limitations and things to be mindful of:

  • Some children see these “safe” smartphones as childish or embarrassing.
  • Some pretend to use these devices to comply with their parents’ rules but then buy burner phones or use friends’ smartphones to access accounts without their parents’ knowledge.
  • Some apps allow children to hide social media accounts in fake calculators.
  • Other apps show a false geolocation, disguising a child’s actual location.
  • Many of these tools cannot monitor in-app content thanks to the refusal of social media companies to allow this.
  • Smartwatches are highly distracting, especially to young children (in fact, at one recent K-5 school talk I gave, the principal said the issues aren’t so much smartphone use as the distractibility of smartwatches– kids texting their parents from class or the playground or the notifications that constantly disrupt).

In keeping with my movement of tech-intentionality, perhaps my biggest concern about these pseudo-smartphones or smartwatches is what they take away from what we know works best: investing in our relationship with our children.

What is your “Why”?

Many parents worry about their child being “the only one” without a phone or feeling left out if they don’t have a smartphone (wait until you see how bad the FOMO gets with a phone). But even giving a kid a device designed to look like a smartphone can appear to be about “fitting in”—which should never be a reason to give such a technologically advanced tool to a child in the first place. (Is that the message we want to send? That trying to fit in is better than experiencing temporary, and very developmentally normal, discomfort?)

As parents grapple with the question of when to give their children a device, especially when they are younger, the smartwatch or smartphone alternative is a seemingly viable option.

But the concern isn’t so much whether a smartphone is better than a smartwatch or alternative device for a young child; the focus should be on the reason a parent feels compelled to give a device in the first place.

I regularly ask this question of parents: Why should they have a device?

The top two responses I hear are “I want to be able to reach my child/have my child reach me” and “I want to keep them safe.”

These responses are understandable: from a parent’s perspective, giving a child a smart device makes reaching a child easier. But smartphones and smartwatches do not make children safer because these devices can present real danger.

 Too much access too soon to smartphones, smartwatches, the internet, online gaming, and social media increases our child’s risk of experiencing actual harm in the form of exposure to pornography, violence, addictive algorithms, cyberbullying, harmful content, dis- and misinformation, and sexual predators.

Not only does a smartphone or smartwatch not keep our child safer; it decreases their ability to focus and be present while exposing them to legitimately dangerous content and people on the internet.

And, as Pew found, giving kids smartphones to solve our parental fears about kidnapping only increases the reality that our other parental fears about mental health and bullying will come true.

Much more than the device itself, I want parents to think about their reasons for providing a communication tool like a smartwatch or kid-friendly smartphone in the first place: What is your “why”?

These are the reasons I hear all the time:

  • “To keep my kid safe from kidnapping”
  • “So my kid isn’t the only one without one/doesn’t feel left out/FOMO”
  • “To be able to reach my kid for pick-ups, etc.”
  • “In case of a school emergency, like a shooting”

What should parents do instead?

Tech-intentional™ parenting means embracing different solutions – that aren’t a quick fix but are effective – to address these challenges.

Some examples include:

  1. To keep your kid safe from kidnapping, teach them how to ask for help, identify safe neighbors and businesses, talk about traffic safety, and have them memorize your phone number (so many kids don’t know phone numbers today!)
  2. To address the FOMO, find them friend groups where digital play isn’t the only form of play (yes, they exist, and no, not “everyone” has a phone, though it’s true most do). Empower your child to be okay with being “different” –  it’s not a bad thing.
  3. Share a phone with your child (this is what we do!) and teach and model smartphone communication skills together.
  4. Teach them how to reach you. School offices still have landlines and parents can still easily get a message to their kids during the day about pick-up changes without disrupting the entire class to text or call a personal device. But if you must have a communication tool, go old school flip-phone (#makeflipphonescoolagain) or get a minimalist phone (see: The Light Phone).
  5. Phones are tools, not toys. Children don’t need bells and whistles on a communication tool beyond texting and calling. (And no- you don’t need to track your child via GPS. If they can call or text, that’s how you’ll know where they are. Teach them to communicate with you about their location and set expectations. We do not want to raise a generation that is comfortable being tracked!)
  6. Know what’s dangerous vs. scary. School shootings are horrifying and awful and still rare. Law enforcement experts say that having a personal device on a student makes a child less safe, not more safe, during an emergency because they are not focused on the first responders. We’re really going to have to take a deep breath on this one, parents. I get it. It’s hard.

Parenting is a form of activism. Being a Tech-Intentional™ parent means being uncomfortable – by acting differently from other parents – and learning to be okay with it.

That’s hard.

But we cannot change the way others do things or decrease the FOMO until and unless we are willing to do the hard work too.

This article is reposted with permission by Emily Cherkin, MEd., The Screentime Consultant. Emily’s book, The Screentime Solution: A Judgment-Free Guide to Becoming a Tech-Intentional Family, was released in 2024.

Read more from The Screentime Consultant:

The Screentime Consultant: The AI question

The Screentime Solution

When ‘I’m Bored’ Means ‘I Want Screentime’

Navigating childhood friendship in a digital world

About the Author

Emily Cherkin

Emily empowers parents to understand and balance family screentime by inspiring a movement around becoming Tech-Intentional™. As a mother of two children and former teacher, she is intimately familiar with the daunting challenges facing families in today’s highly digitized world. Emily is the author of the book The Screentime Solution: A Judgment-Free Guide to Becoming a Tech-Intentional Family, released in 2024. Learn more at