The decision for when to get your kid their first phone, and what kind, is unique to each family. There are a ton of factors: what you can afford, if your kid’s school allows phones, when their friends get phones, parity with an older sibling, and a realistic assessment of your kid on a scale of “mature perfect angel who won’t do anything bad with this phone” to “little shit who is going to fight me over screentime every day.”
And that’s just the family and social dynamic side of it. The actual needs and uses vary wildly too: Do they just need to be able to call you to ask for a ride home from soccer practice? Do you need to be able to GPS-track them, or provide them with maps to plan their own bike route? Do they need email for class assignments? Do they need a phone to video-chat with grandparents?
And then there are those other considerations: What’s your personal anxiety level about school shootings? How about kidnappings? Does it outweigh your anxiety about exposure to child predators, cyberbullying, and pornography? How do you feel about kids and smartphones: Do you long for your childhood where only the luckiest kids had a landline in their bedroom and afternoons were spent in some falsely remembered haze where the main use of a phone was to scam your way into two dinners’ worth of Stove Top stuffing?
Perhaps you embrace the possibility that phones and internet-connected devices are neutral or maybe even positive for kids, teaching them some sort of skills? Did your spouse text you that one New York Times story about the ill effects of phones on kids, or the one from Slate that said the opposite?
Basically, you can take everything about your entire lifestyle and outlook on parenting and boil it down to this one decision: What kind of phone — if any — is your kid getting?
One common option for parents is to get a lower-priced smartphone or older model phone — maybe a hand-me-down from the parent when they upgrade. But for those parents who want to keep their kids away from the hypnotic warm glow of the smartphone, there have been few options aside from a flip phone.
“It’s really painful for a 12-year-old to be the only one with a flip phone,” Stephen Dalby, the founder of Gabb Wireless, a new smartphone designed for kids, told BuzzFeed News. Dalby bought a flip phone for his 12-year-old son, who was truly not amused. “For us, it’s like, what’s the big deal [about having a dorky phone]. But for them, it’s a huge deal.” The experience inspired him to develop a phone specifically for kids.
Another New York City parent (who requested anonymity to protect her kids’ cool factor) confirmed just how tragically dork a flip phone is to a middle schooler. She bought a flip phone for her sixth-grader, but her daughter was so embarrassed she wouldn’t ever even take it out of her backpack, lest her peers see it.
Okay, so why not just get your kid a phone that doesn’t do anything?
That’s precisely the idea behind the newly released Gabb* phone. It’s for parents who truly, truly, do not want their kid to have access to anything the internet might provide. It has no browser (so no Googling “boobs”), no apps (so no social media or video games), no Bluetooth or AirDrop. It doesn’t even offer email. There’s just calling, text messaging, an FM radio, and a calendar — which won’t even sync with a Google Calendar.
Worried about your kid sexting? The Gabb phone offers just SMS texting, not MMS, which means you can send plain text messages only — no texting video or pictures.
I tested out the Gabb phone and considered using it instead of my iPhone XS for a week, though reality stopped me. The touchscreen phone is manufactured by ZTE, and it’s the same general size and weight of an iPhone or Samsung, though it feels distinctly jankier. It runs on Android, and since the features are so Spartan, there’s not much notable to report: The texts work, the calls work. The camera is 5 megapixels, or just 2 in selfie mode, and well, it really makes you appreciate your own smartphone camera. The photos I took with the Gabb reminded me of my Nokia flip phone days.
Since Gabb offers no email, MMS, or AirDrop, the only way to get your photos off the phone is by plugging it into a computer via USB. But it doesn’t play well with Macs. The files showed up in my Macbook’s Photos app in an unreadable file format; even our IT desk was stumped. Eventually, I was able to import the photos via a Windows computer. It truly felt like 2010 again! A rep for Gabb Wireless confirmed that the ZTE phone is not compatible with Mac computers.
Gabb phone (left) vs. iPhone Xs:
Gabb exists on its own wireless network, Gabb Wireless. Like Cricket or Boost Mobile, this is a wireless network that leases the services of bigger providers like Sprint or Verizon and resells it to consumers. The downside to this is that you can’t add your kid’s phone line to your family plan. The plus side is that the talk and text plan is only $20/month, which is probably about the same as or less than you’d be paying for an additional line anyway. The Gabb phone itself is only $99, which makes it cheaper than many current smartphones (but of course, other smartphones DO a lot more stuff).
The Gabb phone does lack GPS tracking. For some parents, this feature is a big safety priority, as middle schoolers often have the freedom to walk or bike or even take the subway to get to school or friends’ houses on their own. One NYC parent of a middle schooler told me that Gabb’s lack of GPS was a dealbreaker for her — she needed to be able to see her daughter had arrived at school each morning safely from the subway. Another parent from that same school told me just the opposite: She doesn’t worry about tracking her kid.
There’s currently only one Gabb phone model, but a second model with a few more features is coming out soon, according to Dalby. This beefier model will be made by Samsung and it will feature a better camera, support photo texting and group texting, and have GPS (it will also be Mac-compatible, unlike the ZTE). The idea is that a kid could “graduate” from the basic Gabb phone after a year or so and upgrade to the model 2 Gabb phone (still with far fewer features than a real smartphone). The basic model might be perfect for a fifth- or sixth-grader, the fancier one for a seventh- or eighth-grader.
Stephanie, a parent of a 12-year-old boy, bought him a Gabb phone. Her reasoning was that he was already very connected at home via other devices (tablets and gaming consoles), but she wanted to be able to text him when he was out with friends. Unfortunately, her son hasn’t shown much interest in the Gabb phone; he seems put off by its limited functionality. “The issue now is if he doesn’t want to use the phone, do I try to force it because I’m the one that wants to be able to reach him?” Her 8-year-old son is eager to get his hands on it, however.
There have been a few other devices developed for kids considered too young for a smartphone, but old enough to need to call or text their parents. The Gizmo smartwatch is a $180 smartwatch with the main function of being able to call and text, plus GPS tracking. The Relay is a colorful, pocket-sized walkie-talkie that sends voice messages over 4G to a parent’s smartphone. A parent at BuzzFeed said he got them for his kids, but his older son found it so un-fun he often forgot to bring it with him. (I tested the Relay with a coworker at BuzzFeed — we thought it was fun, though the rest of the office found us very annoying, since the Relay is basically a speakerphone.) These devices seem to skew to a younger kid, and work only if there’s a supplemental device at home like a tablet or WiFi-only phone where they can call grandma or text classmates about homework assignments.
Is a Gabb phone right for your kid? If your primary concern is keeping them off the internet and away from social media or sexting, then Gabb is an ideal phone for you. Even flip phones tend to have cameras, internet, and games. Even an iPhone with the strictest parental controls activated won’t be this locked down.
Parenting decisions are perpetually fraught, starting in the delivery room and ending with what to wear to their wedding (and probably long after that, to be honest). Getting your kid their first phone is just another one of those decisions you will inevitably torture yourself over and second-guess, particularly because the decision seems to arrive at a time when they’re becoming little individuals with lives and secrets of their own. Scary! So here’s the truth, if you need to hear it: You’re doing a great job, your kid is great, it’s all going to be fine.
*If you’re wondering, yes, Dalby is aware of Gab, the social network for far-right extremists. He said he’s not worried about people confusing the two.