Why the Apple Watch may trump smartphones for kids
It's a modern dilemma for pre-teens: old enough to get themselves to school but too young to get a smartphone of their own.
And it's a trap Apple is recognising with new software to let caregivers set up an Apple Watch for their young charges without having to buy a new smartphone to connect it.
Called Family Setup, the new system will children call home, share their location, or send messages from their wrists but will not open up access to the entire web.
And the new addition is being cautiously welcomed by education and cyber security experts, who say it could provide a useful "stepping stone" to smartphone ownership, even though it may raise issues for schools battling digital distractions.
Apple quietly launched its Family Setup software in Australia this month after outlining the software during its iPhone 12 launch.
The feature will let parents and guardians register a second Watch from their existing iPhone, as long as it's a Series 4 model or later with a cellular connection. Plans are available from Truphone in Australia for $10 a month.
Apple chief operating officer Jeff Williams said the new feature was designed to connect more family members, and "help them keep in touch with loved ones, be more active and stay safe".
But Western Sydney University technology and learning researcher Dr Joanne Orlando said the technology was likely to appeal to parents most of all as an "interim" step on the way to full tech autonomy.
"It's an interesting idea for many parents who are reluctant to make that big step to buying their kids a mobile phone," she said.
"It's a really big decision for parents so now they have an alternative they didn't have before."
Dr Orlando said two motivating factors were most often behind kid smartwatch purchases: parents want to make sure their child is safe when away from home, and want to avoid the "nag factor" of getting a smartphone, particularly if their child is not ready to use one.
"Kids get to an age where they just really want a phone," she said.
Just under half of all Australian children aged between six and 13 years use smartphones, according to a new study from the Australian Communications and Media Authority, and one third of that group own a handset.
While games and snapping photos are the most popular uses of the technology, calling parents and family members, and sending and receiving text messages are also high priorities.
Other popular smartwatches designed to meet kids' needs include the SpaceTalk watch, and TCL MT40 Family Watch.
Molly Kirkman, from Melbourne, said she gave her nine-year-old daughter Audrey a connected TCL smartwatch during the lockdown this year, which she used to keep in touch with family and friends.
Ms Kirkman said the smartwatch has since become a perfect solution to giving her daughter "a little bit of freedom and independence" while maintaining age-appropriate limits.
"I know a few kids who do have smartphones but I don't want her getting into TikTok and Snapchat yet," she said.
"She gets to take photos and keep in contact this way and I don't have to worry about what she's looking at, and can monitor who she's contacting."
Ms Kirkman said the pair also shared their location with one another using the watch, which recently proved useful at a theme park, allowing Audrey to queue with her friends while her mother took her brother on a less adventurous ride.
Cyber safety educator Leonie Smith said she was not surprised Apple was now moving into the market for young users, particularly when there were so many Apple Watches already on the wrists of Australian primary school students.
"Anecdotally, when I was face-to-face in schools, I saw a huge increase in kids with smartwatches," she said.
"And Apple is the most prominent brand used in primary schools. Lots of families are using hand-me-downs."
To accommodate young users, Apple's new software adds a Schooltime mode that shows a bright yellow and black screen and stops notifications. Parents can set up the feature to run on weekdays and, although kids can unlock it with a PIN, their access is logged for parents to see.
Despite this addition, Ms Smith warned the use of smartwatches in class could still be challenging for teachers charged with recognising what devices were safe to use, and schools, some of which had only just banned smartphones from grounds or classrooms.
"Even though there's a recognisable watchface for teachers, it's still going to be very hard," Ms Smith said.
"Teachers don't have the time to police this whole thing. That's what happened with phones."
Dr Orlando also recommended parents not only set limits on smartwatch use but set expectations with their kids, and share their plan to transition to a smartphone in future.
She said it was also worth considering whether buying a smartwatch rather than a phone would save money, and whether the child was ready for the responsibility.
"Even a smartwatch still requires a bit of digital literacy," she said.
"The average age of new smartphone users is about 10 now, so that's the kind of age that would be okay for this, when they're starting to use technology independently."
HOW TO SET UP AN INDEPENDENT APPLE WATCH
Using an Apple Watch to keep tabs on your kid is not as simple as charging up and handing it over.
There is a long list of privacy safeguards, customisations, and features specifically for young students that are worth exploring before fitting this gadget to its enthusiastic new owner.
In fact, it's a process best completed with your child by your side so there are no surprises and clear expectations for everyone.
Apple iPhone users can set up a second Watch simply by turning the smartwatch on beside their phone and choosing to add a 'Family Member'.
Given the age of fresh Watch owners, options include Ask to Buy for apps to prevent surprise bills, and an important new Schooltime feature.
This addition locks the Watch down to its barest functions - telling the time rather than showing notifications - and displays a recognisable yellow and black face to help teachers identify it.
It's worth noting this mode can be unlocked with a PIN - in case of emergencies - though parents will be able to see when and how often that happens.
Other features worth investigating include an approved contact list for phone calls and messages, location sharing that requires permission from both parties, the Walkie Talkie app to send quick voice messages, and the new user's activity goals, including minutes of activity, hours spent standing, and exercise minutes.
If you're feeling bold, you can lay down a fitness challenge to your kid (noting, of course, that they probably have shorter legs and more free time to run about than you).
On the wrist of a six-year-old boy in our tests, these activity goals were the most immediately important feature but his enthusiasm quickly moved to calling his parents from every room, sending vitally important emojis, and using the Walkie Talkie feature to ask for snacks.
Whether your child is ready for an Apple Watch - and whether his or her school is willing to accept gadgets in class - is the most important factor of all, but the safeguards in Apple's new Watch software can assist if the time is right.
Originally published as Why the Apple Watch may trump smartphones for kids