Should your child have a smartwatch instead of a phone?

Author: Marina

Feb. 04, 2024

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Tags: Timepieces, Jewelry, Eyewear

This year my oldest daughter entered the tweens, and with a move to a new state this summer and a new school, it felt like the right time for her to have a way to get a hold of family (and vice versa), while practicing some independence. However, a smartphone didn’t feel like the right choice for her — or for me.

Some experts recommend giving kids a phone between the ages 10 to 14 years old, or about sixth grade, and although we wanted our 9-year-old to have some sort of communication tool, she wasn’t ready for the Wild West of smartphones.

It was on Instagram that I first noticed kids wearing smartwatches. Some of the influencers I follow were posting about the Gabb Watch, a smartwatch designed for kids, and my curiosity was piqued.

My husband and I wanted to be able to see where our daughter was after school, and we wanted her to be able to communicate with us when she wasn’t home, giving her some autonomy while she was learning healthy, age-appropriate technology skills. A smartwatch checked all of those boxes.

The market for these watches has picked up speed in the past few years as parents have realized there is a real need for a communication tool that acts like a phone with training wheels. Experts say kids need an entry point to learn how to be responsible tech users. They need to learn the basics, from how to charge a device to how not to lose that device, and also learn how to navigate the complexities of tech etiquette and, perhaps most importantly, how not to let a device take over your life.

A new report says that 56% of parents want their child to have a cellphone for communication at school. Smartwatches are a great alternative that discourage overuse because of their tiny screens, and encourage safe communication, such as texting and calling family and friends.

Since the early 2010s, with the development and the release of popular smartwatches like the Apple Watch, these wearable mobile computing devices have helped adults track their steps, check the time, and, in my case, find my phone. It’s only natural that I would want the capability to find my kid, too.

Most smartwatches designed for kids are targeted for ages 5 to 12, and offer features like messaging and calling capabilities, GPS tracking and parental controls like a preapproved list of contacts. We settled on the Gabb Watch 2 because of the middling price point ($150 for the watch and $15 a month for cellular service), the parental controls and the simplicity of its features (like the list of 20 pre-composed text message options), and to be honest, the influence of people talking it up on Instagram.

How Gabb came to be

Gabb is a Utah tech company that started fundraising with a Kickstarter campaign in 2019 with the mission to make a phone for kids with parental protections not available on your average smartphone. After the successful introduction of the Gabb Phone, Gabb developed a “wearable” in 2021 — the Gabb Watch.

With the recent release of the Gabb Watch 3, Gabb CEO Nate Randle and Colin Cole, the company’s vice president of product who designed the Gabb watch, talked to me about Gabb’s mission to “connect and protect.”

Cole explained that smartwatches designed for kids have to be for kids first: “Ultimately, we can put all the safety features in a watch, but if a kid chooses not to charge the product or not take it to school, all those features are irrelevant because they’re not on the kid. We want kids to feel confident; we want them to feel safe; we want them to feel something different when wearing our product.”

The concept of safety and smart tech is a delicate needle to thread since we now know more than ever about the dangers of what Randle calls “too much tech, too soon.” Helping kids learn how to use technology as a powerful tool through monitored exposure over time can help them avoid real risks, he said.

For parents of the under-18 crowd, the past several years have felt a series of successive scary headlines. This year, the U.S. surgeon general warned about the impact of social media on kids’ mental health. An American Psychological Association panel suggested, “Just as we require young people to be trained in order to get a driver’s license, our youth need instruction in the safe and healthy use of social media.” And Utah is among a number of states trying to craft restrictions on social media use among kids.

But social media is just one facet of smartphones and smart tech. Kids need practice to learn how to be responsible tech users.

As Randle said, “You’d never let your kids go into the deep end of the swimming pool without swim lessons, floaties and lots of practice and supervision. But with tech, we give kids devices, we lose sight of what’s going on, and we’re shocked that they’re drowning at the bottom of the tech swimming pool. We’re doing our best to educate parents and celebrate the safety of kids.”

A ‘great first step’

There’s a phrase common in modern therapy speak: Avoidance feeds anxiety. Intentional exposure to safe communication tools like smartwatches can help parents feel in control of the tech tools in their children’s life.

Just like any other form of tech, smartwatches are not without their issues; there have been concerns about privacy, security and data collection, for example. However, the more tailored smartwatches designed for kids become, the more the companies who make them can better address these concerns. It’s up to parents and caregivers to check devices’ privacy settings and, as the website Common Sense suggests, “Make informed decisions about which smartwatches to buy and use.”

Sarah Coyne is a professor at Brigham Young University who studies the effect of media on children and families; she is also the associate director of the School of Family Life, as well as a mom of five children. Her 10-year-old wears a smartwatch because “as a developmental psychologist, I love that the watch is developmentally appropriate. It teaches some great skills to my younger kids to help them get ready for the larger responsibility of a cell phone and social media. It’s a great first step.”

Coyne says there is no specific age that smartwatches may be appropriate or specific boundaries that should be in place — it’s up to families to make those measured decisions. The good news about smartwatches for kids is that because of safety features available on most watches, families can adapt usage to what works best for them.

My daughter has been using her Gabb watch daily for the past six weeks, and over that time, she’s gotten more consistent at remembering to wear it and charging it nightly in the kitchen. We’ve all been enjoying the ability for her to roam the neighborhood a little more freely since I can check her location and call her when it’s time to come home for dinner.

On particularly tricky days at a new school, I’ve sent her “I love you” texts that I know she’ll see during recess and lunchtime. And getting an “I love you” text back has felt like a fulfillment of the promise of communication technology — enhancement of our most meaningful relationships.

To find the best smartwatches for kids , we first spoke with media and medical experts about kids' technology use and digital safety , as well as what to look for in a good smartwatch for kids. Then, we chose 10 kids' smartwatches to send home with our editors to use with their children. For over six months, we evaluated the features, function, and kid-friendliness of these devices . Using these testing insights, we narrowed down our list to the six best smartwatches for kids. A pediatric psychologist on our Review Board also reviewed this article for medical accuracy and integrity around safe technology use.

When buying a smartwatch for your kid, consider their age and maturity level, your budget, and the parental controls and features that will be most helpful for your family. Remember that a discussion about internet safety and expectations around technology use should accompany the introduction of any smart device.

Is your kid really ready for a phone ? If the answer is "not quite," the solution may be a smartwatch, which offers a safe and useful way for your family to test out the digital waters. The best smartwatches for kids allow you to communicate with your child and make sure they're safe when you're not together: GPS features let caregivers track their kid's location to make sure the school bus dropped them off at home while texting functions allow kids to message their parents to ask for permission for an impromptu play date.

Best for Younger Kids

Verizon Gizmo Watch 3

Verizon

Pros

  • Good safety features

  • Relatively budget-friendly

  • Comes in fun colors and has games

Cons

  • Location is a little off

  • Scratches easily

Why We Recommend It

If you’d like a way to contact or track your kid but they’re not yet old enough for a phone, the Verizon Gizmo Watch is a smart solution. It has enough features to make younger kids feel like one of the big kids whilst maintaining age-appropriateness. Plus, it has plenty of parental controls and safety precautions so caregivers can feel confident about giving it to their kids. Our young tester enjoyed playing the included gamesonly a few are available on the watch, which we appreciated.

Setting up this smartwatch is fairly seamless. Parents can add up to 20 approved contacts who can message or call the kid through the GizmoHub app or another Gizmo Watch. The watch itself can only send preset phrases, emojis, voice memos, or video messages (recorded with the watch's front-facing camera), so your kid can’t text just anything they want. This can be a positive or a negative, depending on your family’s needs, but it’s useful for younger kids. You’ll also get an alert every time they send a text or make a call, which we think is a handy safety feature, but some may find it annoying if your kid is an avid texter.

This watch has geographic boundaries, so you can get alerts if your kid strays from that area. Unfortunately, during testing we found that the smallest radius is still pretty big: It encompassed our apartment and our kid’s school, which are a city block (1,400 feet or so) away, so it was hard to tell whether our kid was at home, at school, or walking in between. (This may not be much of an issue for kids who go to school farther away from home, though.)

The sound quality is much like any phone on speaker: not crystal clear but still plenty clear. After six months of use, there are a few scratches on the screen, but nothing that interferes with using the watch. Our kids particularly like the color of this watch, which is available in several bright shades with an adjustment loop in a contrasting color. To charge, make sure it’s accurately centered on the included charger. The battery will last up to three days on standby. For us, it lasted about a day and a half with average usage.

The Takeaway

The smartwatch is easy for younger kids to navigate thanks to the straightforward app icons and voice memo messaging. It's also among the lower-priced options on our list, making it a great first foray into technology for your kid.

Key Specs:

  • Battery Life: Up to 3.6 days standby time
  • Compatible Networks: Verizon
  • Number of Contacts Allowed: 20 with caregiver approval
  • Screen Size: 1.4 inches

Verywell / Jhett Thompson

Best for Tweens and Teens

Apple Watch SE 2nd Gen

Amazon

$199

$179

$250

Our Ratings

  • Setup

    4

    /5

  • Connectivity

    4

    /5

  • Tracking

    5

    /5

  • Software/App

    5

    /5

  • Battery Life

    4.5

    /5

Pros

  • Lots of high-tech features and functions

  • Parental controls available

  • Most affordable Apple watch

Cons

  • Too much internet access for younger kids

Why We Recommend It

The Apple Watch SE is an excellent pick for tweens and teens. Older kids will enjoy its advanced features, while caregivers will appreciate the price (it’s less expensive than other Apple models) and the parental controls. With this smartwatch, kids can play games, set homework timers, ask Siri questions, track their physical activity, or iMessage their friends. They can also make phone calls, including an SOS call to 911 if needed. The band is easy to take on and off and comes in many fun colors, while the charger works quickly. The watch is fairly simple to set up, but pairing it with the Apple Watch app can be wonky at times.

Through Apple Family Sharing settings, caregivers can set parental controls for App Store and iTunes purchases, screen time limits, and trusted contacts. Once enabled, you can also set up other features like location sharing, Siri, Apple Cash Family, iMessages, emergency contacts, medical ID, and more. Additionally, you can turn on Schooltime mode, which limits access during school hours. One of our kids particularly loved the fun facts app she downloaded, as well as the activity features: The watch shows three rings with goals for movement, exercise, and standing.

As parents, our primary concern is our child’s safety, so we appreciate the watch’s near-real-time tracking. We were able to fetch an accurate location with a delay of only 15 to 30 seconds. It’s an easy feature to set up since it pops up during the initial watch setup. It’s most handy if the caregiver also has an Apple device since the location tracking operates using Apple’s Find My app. But with Family Setup, the watch can access every feature without being paired to an iPhone.

Though this is the priciest pick on our list, we trust teens and tweens to take better care of their belongings. After six months of use in our test, there were only a couple of trivial scratches; once a screen protector was applied, no further scratches appeared.

The Takeaway

This is the base model Apple Watch, so teens and tweens can enjoy a full-featured smartwatch that they can use for years. Once they’re old enough, all parental controls can be removed.

Key Specs:

  • Battery Life: Up to 18 hours
  • Compatible Networks: Any network that works with an iPhone
  • Number of Contacts Allowed: Unlimited, once approved by caregiver
  • Screen Size: 1.7 inches

Verywell / Jhett Thompson

Best Battery Life

Garmin Bounce

Garmin

Our Ratings

  • Setup

    3

    /5

  • Connectivity

    4

    /5

  • Tracking

    5

    /5

  • Software/App

    4

    /5

  • Battery Life

    5

    /5

Pros

  • Location feature works well

  • One charge lasts for a while

  • Preset texts are customizable

Cons

  • No camera

Why We Recommend It

One of the primary reasons parents want a smartwatch for their kids is to contact and locate them when they’re not together, which can’t be done if the watch battery doesn't last. Even the most responsible kids are bound to forget to charge their watches overnight from time to time, so we appreciate that the Garmin Bounce has a particularly impressive battery life. Though it varies depending on whether live tracking is enabled, we found that when it had a full charge in the morning, this smartwatch typically had around 70% of the battery left at the end of the day—more than many of the other options we tested. 

The safety features are great, too. As long as the “Assistance” feature is enabled, if your kid needs help, their contacts will receive a message with a tracking link to their live location. Parents can also add up to 20 approved contacts (kids can’t add any by themselves) to whom kids can send emojis, preset texts, or audio messages through the Garmin Jr. app (available on Apple or Android), though the watch can’t record video messages. The preset texts are customizable, so if certain phrases will come in handy for your family, you can program them into the watch.

Additionally, the location tracking on this watch works quite well. You can set geographic boundaries and be alerted when your kid enters or exits that area. This feature is particularly useful if your kid takes the bus home while you’re at work or walks to school by themselves.

Since it tracks health data like heart rate, steps, sleep, and exercise, it’s great for sporty kids—even swimmers: The swim-friendly watch can withstand water pressures up to 50 meters. Kids can also set timers or stopwatches, which is great for reading, workouts, homework, or chores. Thanks to the sophisticated design, kids can feel grown up: Our 9-year-old tester commented that he likes wearing it because “it doesn’t look like a kids’ watch.” It comes in a few different bright and neutral colors, so your kid can pick their preferred look. 

The Takeaway

We think this reasonably priced watch is a worthwhile purchase due to its accurate location tracking, long battery life, and health data tracking.

Key Specs:

  • Battery Life: Up to 2 days
  • Compatible Networks: Any
  • Number of Contacts Allowed: 20 with caregiver approval
  • Screen Size: 1.3 inches

Verywell / Jhett Thompson

Best With Camera

Xplora XGO3

Amazon

$129

$52

$100

Our Ratings

  • Setup

    4

    /5

  • Connectivity

    3.8

    /5

  • Tracking

    5

    /5

  • Software/App

    3.9

    /5

Pros

  • Accurate live location tracking

  • Can take and send photos

  • School mode limits usage to essentials

  • Step counter includes a reward system

Cons

  • Instructions could be improved

Why We Recommend It

The Xplora XGO3 stands out because kids can use it to take pictures with the 2-megapixel camera. They can then send the photos to their parent-approved contacts (up to 50), which is a great way to stay connected with cousins or grandparents. Setup is a breeze with the quick start guide. The watch comes with a SIM card installed, so you’ll just need to choose one of Xplora’s plans, which start at $10/month. However, the instructions did not help describe how to use the smartwatch so we had to use the internet and contact customer service to fully start using the watch.

When it comes to texting, kids can only send canned messages—there’s no option to type one out. Audio messages and photos can also be sent, which contacts receive in the Xplora app, available on Apple and Android. You may need to disconnect the watch from Wi-Fi for the messages to go through, but it can be used on 2G, 3G, or 4G cell networks, so this isn’t a huge issue. The audio quality of phone calls is adequate.

We found the live location tracking impressively accurate—even on the streets of New York City; it refreshes frequently, provides timestamps, and logs 72 hours of location history. Caregivers will also appreciate school mode: When it’s enabled, kids can only tell the time so they can concentrate in school. The smartwatch also has alarms and a calculator, as well as a step counter that rewards kids with one coin for every 1,000 steps, which they can use to play games or change the watch face design.

This watch held up well to our kids’ activities—including cartwheels and playground fun—but we do wish a screen protector was included for extra durability (you can add one to your purchase for $17). The band is available in neutral and bright colors, so your kiddo can find one that fits their style.

The Takeaway

While we would have preferred more extensive instructions, once you get the hang of it, we love this watch for its camera, location tracking, and ability to add more contacts than most other options on this list. It's also one of our more budget-friendly picks. 

Key Specs:

  • Battery Life: Up to 72 hours on standby
  • Compatible Networks: T-Mobile and Xplora's connectivity
  • Number of Contacts Allowed: 50 with caregiver approval
  • Screen Size: 1.4 inches

Verywell / Jhett Thompson

Best Basic

Gabb Gabb Watch 3

$105

Pros

  • Good battery life

  • Digital pet for the kid to take care of

  • Simple setup

Cons

  • Wristband may be tricky for kids to put on

  • Delayed location alerts

Why We Recommend It

The Gabb Watch's features and functionalities are age-appropriate and intuitive for school-aged children. Kids can send one of 20 custom messages, audio messages, and emojis. Plus, focus mode means parents can set limits on when their kid can text and to whom they can send messages—the watch can reach up to 100 caregiver-approved contacts. We were able to set the watch to only be able to text a caregiver during school hours to reduce distractions. There’s an SOS feature, too, for added peace of mind.

Its digital pet feature is unique. Kids are motivated to check off tasks on their to-do list and hit their step goal to receive coins, which they can use to take care of their pet. They can also choose from 12 different wallpaper options and six themes. A nifty flashlight feature is available, and the battery life is pretty good—this smartwatch typically had 50% to 60% of the battery left at the end of a full day of use. 

Setting it up with approved contacts and geographic limits is pretty seamless and the phone app interface is well-designed. Location tracking is pretty accurate though a bit slow compared to the Apple Watch SE. The location alerts are a mixed bag: Sometimes, we received alerts that our daughter had left school while she was still in class, or got automated messages that she got on the bus and arrived at school at the same time.

We found that the included watch band can be tricky for some kids to get on, and the plastic material isn’t the most comfortable. We decided to buy a separate sports band that attaches with velcro to make it easier for our 8-year-old. After a month of frequent use, we noticed some scratches on the watch screen, though they were only visible when the watch was turned off and they didn’t interfere with the functioning of the watch. 

Editor's Note: Since we originally tested the Gabb Watch, a new version has become available. The Gabb Watch 3 has more storage and memory, Bluetooth connectivity, and best of all, increased durability: water resistance and a Gorilla Glass screen. It also has speech-to-text so kids can now dictate text messages and a nine-key keypad that can be used with emojis, alphabet, or numbers. We continue to recommend this product as a good, basic smartwatch for kids.

The Takeaway

The Gabb Wireless is a great introduction to technology for younger kids who aren’t ready for a phone yet. The Gabb 3's improvements also make it a worthy investment.

Key Specs:

  • Battery Life: 12-48 hours depending on usage
  • Compatible Networks: Gabb Wireless
  • Number of Contacts Allowed: 100 with caregiver approval
  • Screen Size: 1.4 inches

Verywell / Jhett Thompson

Best With Games

T-Mobile SyncUP Kids Watch

T-Mobile

Our Ratings

  • Setup

    4

    /5

  • Connectivity

    5

    /5

  • Tracking

    2.5

    /5

  • Software/App

    4.5

    /5

  • Battery Life

    2.5

    /5

Pros

  • Has a camera

  • Animations, voice changer, and other kid-friendly features

  • Compatible parental phone app is intuitive

  • School mode to limit distractions

Cons

  • Battery drains quickly

  • Inconsistent live tracking

Why We Recommend It

Kids love gaming, and what could be better than a watch with built-in interactive games they can play at any time? The T-Mobile SyncUP Kids Watch comes with several games—our kids couldn’t get enough of the "Dino Run” game and other entertaining features, like a voice changer, animations, two watch band options, and emojis and stickers they could use to text.

From the parents’ perspective, we appreciated that the games were much more limited than on a smartphone or tablet, so they weren’t too distracting. Plus, there’s a school mode that limits access to games and other potential distractions. The watch can make phone calls and has a built-in camera.

The texting function is convenient and easy to use. Unlike other kids’ smartwatches that only send preset messages, kids can type their own texts on the SyncUP Kids Watch’s keyboard. In addition, they can text emojis, stickers, and voice memos to their parent-approved contacts, who will appreciate that the messages appear on their phone in their texts rather than a specific app, like with the Garmin Bounce.

Though some features work well, we were disappointed by the location tracking and boundary alert functions. During testing, the tracker often showed that kids were a few blocks away from where they really were, and we sometimes got a “weak signal” alert when we tried to use the boundary alert feature, which is supposed to tell parents when their kid leaves a designated area. If location tracking is your main priority, we recommend the Apple Watch SE instead. We do like that the water-resistant smartwatch has a “Help” button, which allows kids to reach their emergency contacts or call 911, and a replaceable screen protector to help prevent scratches and shattering. 

The Takeaway

If you’re looking for a fun watch that keeps your kid entertained and connected via text, the T-Mobile SyncUP Watch is a solid option.

Key Specs:

  • Battery Life: Not specified, but during testing, we had less than 20% after a day of regular use
  • Compatible Networks: T-Mobile
  • Number of Contacts Allowed: Unlimited, once approved by caregiver
  • Screen Size: 1.4 inches

Verywell / Jhett Thompson

Should your child have a smartwatch instead of a phone?

The 6 Best Smartwatches for Kids of 2024, Tested by Kids and Parents

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