Cell Phone Alternatives for Kids

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Written by: Mark Lambert

Video Transcript

Julissa: So, I’m, so, so thrilled. Enjoy it. These are some great items. My favorite nerd Ryan from, Nerds On Call, is here with us. Because all you parents out there who have preteens, you know what we’re talking about. But these are some great solutions.


Ryan: Yeah and, you know, even if you’re kids are bugging you and you’ve just been like, no I don’t wanna get you a thing. There are some benefits, right?


Julissa: Yeah.


Ryan: You can get GPS tracking. They can call you if they get dropped off at the wrong bus stop. If they wanna have a playdate or if they’re on a playdate that’s getting uncomfortable and they’re like mom I need you to seriously come get me, this is crazy.


Julissa: Right, and that’s why I think parents are like, oh yes no, you know, what do we do?


Ryan: But you don’t wanna give them a smartphone, so they’ve got a bunch of things and distraction and the whole internet in their pocket. I mean that’s terrible. So these are just really cool ways to do it without giving them access to everything. This is called the Gizmo Watch, it’s from Verizon. It’s 180 bucks plus 30 bucks for activation and then $5 a month. It is an Apple Watch for your kids. So you press this little button here and you can see the time, you can scroll through and…


Julissa: Oh, very similar to the Apple Watch.


Ryan: Exactly. And there’s me and I can click this little button and it’ll call me. Or he can give me a little text, with a little voice text right there and he could say, hey, I need the [inaudible 00:01:03] or whatever. But you can put up to 10 contacts into this thing and so they can call mom, they can call dad, they can call uncle, aunts whatever…


Julissa: But it keeps what out? What can’t they do?


Ryan: They can’t scan the internet, they can’t do anything. It’s literally just a watch that they can call people on and they can give them little voice recordings…


Julissa: Love that.


Ryan: …and things like that, so they can stay in contact. Plus there’s a GPS tracking in there so you can kind of check out where they are. You can set up boundaries so if they wander outside certain boundaries, it’ll alert you and say, hey…


Julissa: Love that.


Ryan: …Jack is running off into the field. Go get him, so that kind of. Pretty cool right there. So that’s a pretty good alternative. This, this is just a cheapy little throwaway phone we got on Amazon. This is 30 bucks. It’s from Altair, it’s an LTE phone. The cool thing about this is, remember the old Blackberry?


Julissa: Yeah.


Ryan: Well, Jackson, my son…


Julissa: I do remember.


Ryan: Jackson is 10 and he would prefer to text us, but he doesn’t have anything to text, right?


Julissa: Right.


Ryan: So if he doesn’t wanna use a little watch to call us, he can call us on this or text us. He can also have his little friends in there, his little contacts. Plus it’s got a little 2-megabyte camera on the back. You can go to Republic Wireless for about 15 bucks a month and get access. So, it’s pretty cool, right? Just a little alternative and he still can’t get to the wide world of the internet.


Julissa: But because of all those buttons, they think it’s all cool and snazzy.


Ryan: Yeah, otherwise it’s a flip phone and they gotta go a, a, a, b, b, b, you know, to press things so it’s not really that cool.


Julissa: Okay, this is my favorite thing. Okay, this is super cool.


Ryan: It is.


Julissa: And I feel like I need this. So, this is called the Relay?


Ryan: It’s called the Relay. These little nodes are about 50 bucks a piece. And the coolest part about these is they’re like little walkie-talkies but they go over either Wi-Fi or the LTE network.


Julissa: So, it’s like more than your neighbor’s house?


Ryan: Yeah.


Julissa: Like we’re here in West Sacramento. And where is yours connected right now?


Ryan: Jackson, my son, he’s in Carmichael sitting at our house getting ready for school.


Julissa: And how do we know that?


Ryan: Well we can see him on the Apple TV, we put him up on the phone there. I don’t know if we can see him, but we’ll switch over to him real quick. Oh, can you see him sitting there waiting? Now let’s contact him, we’re gonna press this little button, we’re gonna say, “Hey, Jackson you’re on TV, wave.”


Jackson: Hello.


Ryan: Hello.


Julissa: I love it.


Ryan: Looks like your little sister is sitting there, Isabella. I see Isabella.


Julissa: Cat wants to talk.


Isabella: Can you see Mojo?


Julissa: Yes.


Ryan: Yeah. Yep we can see Mojo.


Julissa: Hi, Mojo.


Jackson: What?


Julissa: What? I love it. Oh my gosh, Ryan this is amazing. So these pieces are $50 and then you said there’s a subscription fee?


Ryan: Yeah, it’s 10 bucks a month for the subscription fee. But you can see it lights up all of them all at once. Plus you can have multiple channels. So you can have a channel between your two kids so they can talk, channel for mom and dad, channel for aunt and uncle, whatever. And they can switch the channels just by pressing a little button.


Julissa: I love that.


Ryan: We also have this little case with a lanyard on it…


Julissa: So they can maybe hook that up, yeah.


Ryan: Attach it to their backpack, super cool.


Julissa: This is fantastic.


Ryan: Heck yeah, much cooler than old-school walkie-talkies.


Julissa: All right, that is called the Relay. We’re definitely going to link that up. We’ve got all of the links set up to ours, gooddaysacramento.com.


Julissa: Ryan, thank you very much.


Ryan: You’re welcome.


Julissa: Always great. Stick around we’ve got more stuff coming up next hour.


Ryan: Wedding apps is what we’re gonna talk about next hour.


Julissa: You’re planning the big day.


Ryan: Thanks, Jackson.


Julissa: Thanks, Jackson.


Cody: Thanks, Jackson.


Julissa: So is it too late for me to go back and take my kid, Mario, is gonna be 14 next week [crosstalk 00:04:25]


Ryan: It’s an Android anyway. It’s a piece of junk.


Julissa: Ooh, she just spazzed out, oh Nelly. Ryan, if you just slowly walk that way.


Julissa: I just got flatlined, by Nerds On Call. What, did you hear what he just said?


Cody: Hey, he’s an expert and I’m just saying.


Ryan: Cody’s on my side.


Cody: I can’t argue with my fellow nerd.


Ryan: Cody, you and me.


Julissa: I gotta go take a walk.


Ryan: iPhone.


Cody: Let’s get over to.


Recent studies have shown that 112% of American kids and pre-teens desperately want a smartphone. We’re pretty sure we read that somewhere.

It’s probably the most common and all-pervasive bone of contention in a household blessed with children: they won’t stop whining, whining and (just when you thought it was safe to restart your Netflix show) whining some more for a cell phone.

Two kids with cell phones

But you may be saying no for really good reasons! Cellphones and their constant stream of social media and gaming are huge distractions for kids and adults alike. Not to mention the fees and the potential risks you’re bringing into their lives. It’s a big decision to make, and as much as your pre-pubescent minion would hate to hear you say it, they just may not be ready.

Here’s our take on the cellphone dilemma, along with a few suggestions for alternative tech you might consider, to keep your fledgling humans cell phone free just that little bit longer.

Benefits of Letting Them Have A Phone

First of all, we’d be remiss not to concede there are some significant upsides in letting your kid have a cellphone.

Obviously, the big plus you’re getting is that it allows your munchkin to get in touch with you in case of an emergency. In the highly unlikely case, your clever kid hasn’t reminded you of this seventeen thousand times already, sometimes a cell phone is just the best and most efficient way to get out of a tight spot.

Accidentally find yourself at the wrong bus stop? Text dad to save the day. Soccer practice finished up early? “Mom. Come get me. Bring snacks.”

GPS is a huge boon as well. Configured right, you’ll have the ability to see where your kid’s phone (and ergo your kid) is located at any time. Let’s be real and admit that can bring a lot of peace of mind when they’re out and about in the big world.

The Dangers

But there are absolutely dangers associated with putting a cellphone into the hands of a young one.

First up, it’s a massive time suck. You know your average kid is going to be texting their buddies when they should be paying attention in class and doing their homework. At the very least, you’ll want to check up on your school’s policy for handling cell phone misuse as well as setting up some pretty draconian policies for your own household (and be warned, you may well be pressured to practice what you preach on the home front!)

A child with a smartphone

Then there’s the very real threat of social media and online bullying. This is no joke and there are some horror stories out there of kids experiencing brutal bullying through social media. Be sure to educate yourself on the risks. ConnectSafely is a great resource.  

Finally, the Internet is a jungle of adult content. There’s a lot of stuff out there which just isn’t intended or appropriate for kids’ eyes. And it’s all too easy to stumble across without good parental controls and close monitoring.

There are ways though to have your cake and eat it too. Here are some technologies which provide emergency contact and location tracking without all those additional risks.

Gizmo Watch ($180 + $30 activation fee + $5 per month)

Verizon’s Gizmo Watch is like an Apple Watch for kids. It supports 2-way voice and text messaging and sports the wonderful feature of allowing you to predefine up to 10 trusted contacts, limiting the watch to only permit communication with these people.

It also lets you define a GPS boundary. You’ll be notified the moment your roaming rugrat strays outside their allowed territory. This is a great added security feature a lot of parents will seize on enthusiastically.

It’s also built with the classroom in mind, with a quiet mode for when your kids are in class and need to concentrate.

Best of all though, this is a device kids are going to actually want to wear. It straight up looks like an Apple Watch only a smidge brighter and friendlier.

Here’s a pro tip for this one. Keep an eye out for Verizon promotions! From time to time they’ll run a sweet special on this particular item.

Relay ($50 + $10 per month)

Two things make the Relay stand out as a near perfect choice, especially for younger kids.


For one, this simple device has one button. No screens. No apps. No fiddly controls. Pressing the phone’s one button will connect your kid to an app on your phone. The app can be configured to allow communication with any contacts you specify. It’s basically a really cool, incredibly simple little walky-talky, where you get to control the switchboard.

The second killer feature of Relay is that multiple relay devices can be connected up to the service. So if you have a plethora of child-units in your care, you can stay in touch with all of them through one easily managed interface.

For young kids who clearly aren’t ready for the big bad Internet and the distractions of social media, this device is an elegant way to have all the safety benefits without any of the downsides.

ZTE Altair Unlocked Phone ($30)

Then of course, you can opt to give them a phone, but one with a feature set specifically designed for a younger crowd.

Take the ZTE Altair as a prime example. This gadget is perfect for kids who are old enough to know they really want a cellphone but aren’t quite ready for a fully featured version.

ZTE Altair phone

This phone, quite groovily, actually bears a close resemblance to a later model Blackberry. It has a modest sized screen and a neat mechanical keyboard, both rugged enough to withstand a kid pummeling and engineered to be easy for miniscule stubby fingers to use.

It has a solid rear-facing camera and an external memory card for storing songs, photos and videos. Is it going to be everything they hoped for? No. It’s pretty bare bones. But it will give them text and talk functionality and hopefully just enough additional gadgetry to placate them for a time.

Oh, and make sure you look for GSM unlocked. These will work on any GSM network with a standard sized SIM card.

Republic Wireless ($15 per month)

Finally, we need to give a shout out to Republic Wireless as a cell plan well worth taking a close look at. If you do opt for a smartphone for your kids, these plans may be a great way to maintain some level of control over what they can and can’t do.

Simply purchase a voice and text plan with no data. This makes the phone just fine for regular communications, but it’ll be a big ol’ brick when it comes to data connectivity. Mischief managed!

And of course, down the line when they’re ready, you can simply upgrade the plan and usher them into the world of data access. It’s a versatile option which can grow with your family.


When and how to give your kids access to portable technology is a big decision. Fortunately, there’s some great technology out there that is specifically designed to help you take it slow and steady. Your kids may not be delighted about the compromise, but if you remind them it’s better than nothing, chances are fair to middling they’ll grudgingly agree. Stay strong.

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Mark Lambert writes about technology, modernity, and society. He’s especially interested in exploring how emerging technologies change how people think and what they want.