The Best Smartphone Alternatives for Kids
A list of the best smartphone alternatives for kids, tweens, and teens, vetted by digital safety experts
The smartphone is one of the 21st century’s greatest innovations. Steve Jobs’ presentation of the iPhone — basically the first modern smartphone — is still fresh in our minds. “Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone,” he said. Fast forward 15 years, and the smartphone is now a powerful, all-in-one machine that fits in the palm of our hand and can do practically anything a computer does.
As parents, however, we know that using a smartphone involves a lot of responsibility. Our kids need to be able to manage their time, avoid online dangers, build healthy social interactions, and learn how to put their smartphones to good use. And unfortunately, not all kids, tweens, and teens are ready for a smartphone yet.
The good news is, there are devices out there that can replace smartphones for the time being as you prepare your child for the responsibilities of smartphone ownership. These devices deliver some of the most critical smartphone features your child might need, sans the distractions of social media, games, and apps and the dangers of unfettered internet access.
The five smartphone alternatives below have been vetted by our digital safety and security experts. Take a look and decide which works best for you and your child.
The 5 Best Smartphone Alternatives for Kids
We scoured the market for the best smartphone alternatives, and these are our top picks. They are not in any particular order, as we believe that only you, as the parent, can decide which one is best for your child. That said, we highlight the pros and cons of each to help you determine which could work for your parenting style.
Gabb Watch 2
If your youngster often forgets their lunchbox at school and you’re worried they might do the same to a smartphone, a wearable smartwatch is a great alternative.
The Gabb Watch 2 is a smartwatch/phone that can open up a real-time communication line between you and your child. Plus, it has useful location tracking features that can let you know where your little one is 24/7 and alert you when they enter or leave a specified zone.
What We Like
- Typical smartwatch features like step-counting
- Parent-controlled “lock mode” scheduling
- Unlimited voice and text
- Parent-managed contacts
What We Don’t Like
- Preinstalled virtual pet game
- Preset text messages only
- Requires a monthly fee for unlimited call and text
- Limited color and band design options
Gabb Wireless delivers kid-friendly devices, and the Gabb Watch 2 is first in its product line. It helps kids of any age develop basic digital skills. It gives children access to call, text, and voice text functions and parents the ability to control and monitor every aspect of those features. The watch can save up to 25 parent-managed contacts, and only communications from those contacts will go through to keep kids safe from spam and texts from strangers.
Additionally, you can track your child with the smartwatch from your phone or computer. You can even set up GPS safe zones and get alerts when your child leaves or enters the premises. And if your child ever feels unsafe, they can use the SOS button to call their emergency contact (a.k.a. you) while simultaneously pinging their location.
One slight downside of the Gabb Watch 2 is that it comes preloaded with a virtual pet game. If you’re worried it might become a distraction, you can schedule Lock Mode to turn on when they’re at school. With this feature on, only calls to the emergency contact are allowed.
Who it’s best for: The Gabb Watch 2 is best for younger kids who are not yet ready for a smartphone but need a way to stay in touch with parents, family, and friends.
If your primary concern about getting your tween or teen a smartphone is that it might become a distraction at school, then the iPad is another great alternative. Research suggests that using devices at school for nonclassroom purposes divides students’ attention.1 The larger size of the iPad means your child is less likely to carry it around as much as they might with a smartphone.
The iPad also offers powerful parental controls, allowing you to manage how your child uses the device. You can control their screen time, block inappropriate websites and harmful apps, and limit their contacts. As a bonus, it’s really easy to set up iPad parental controls.
What We Like
- Easy to set up parental controls
- Completely manage allowed screen time, apps, and websites
- Resistant to malware and viruses
- Progressively loosen parental controls as your child matures
What We Don’t Like
- Workarounds for iPad parental controls
- Larger screen, more entertainment options
- No audio call function unless you’re also an iPhone/iPad user
- Location sharing can be turned off
Apple’s parental control software is called Screen Time, and it’s a great tool for parents who want to give their children limited internet freedom to help them learn the basics of internet safety. Moreover, as your child learns how to be more responsible, you can adjust the settings to give them more freedom progressively.
iPads are also virus-resistant. iPads generally don’t need antivirus software, as there are built-in protections in place. For example, Apple is great at preventing malicious apps from entering the App Store, and even if an app contains malware, it won’t be able to get through to the iPad because apps are compartmentalized. That’s one less thing for parents to worry about.
Who it’s best for: The iPad is best for tweens and teens who have a good understanding of online safety but have a tendency to be distracted when carrying around a smartphone all the time.
Just like the iPad, a Chromebook is best suited for tweens or teens who already have a grasp on how to stay safe online but might still need guidance on screen time management.
A Chromebook is a basic, affordable laptop with just enough features to help school-aged kids do schoolwork or homework. It runs on ChromeOS, made by Google, which is both simple and secure. Unlike Windows laptops or MacBooks, Chromebooks have access to basic apps only, but that’s a good thing for some youngsters because it limits their access to distractions.
What We Like
- Secure operating system with few or no viruses
- Google Family Link parental controls
- Safe internet browsing through Chrome
- Powerful enough for general schoolwork or homework
What We Don’t Like
- Can download apps from the Google Play Store
- No call or text function unless you use third-party apps
- Needs to be online to track location
- Not powerful enough for advanced tasks like photoshopping
Chromebooks aren’t designed for kids specifically, but you can protect your child online using the Google Family Link app. Family Link is Google’s take on parental control software. Through it, you can set parental controls for Google’s services and devices, including Chromebooks, Android phones, and Chrome browsers. You can even transfer parental controls to a smartphone if you plan to buy your youngster an Android phone down the line.
Its greatest advantage is that it’s a laptop, so it makes it easy for your kid to perform general school-related tasks, from writing essays to making presentations.
While a Chromebook can download apps and games from Google Play, which could become distractions, there are two things to keep in mind. First, you can manage what apps your child can download and use via the Family Link app. You can block certain apps or even take away their ability to download apps if necessary. Second, games from Google Play are generally not designed for use with Chromebook, so they are less likely to become distractions than games played on a smartphone or tablet.
Who it’s best for: The Chromebook is best for responsible tweens or teens that need a basic laptop for schoolwork and homework.
If you want to be practical, the Troomi Wireless phone is a great option. It looks like a smartphone. In fact, it is a smartphone, but until your child is ready, it functions as a basic touchscreen phone. It has no social media apps, no games, and no internet access.
The Troomi phone runs on KidSmart OS, but the hardware is made by Samsung. And because it looks just like a smartphone, youngsters are likely to be more receptive to it as an alternative.
What We Like
- Smartphone-like design
- Child-safe operating system
- Smartphone features can be unlocked progressively
- GPS location, text messaging, and voice call
What We Don’t Like
- Requires a monthly fee
- No smartphone app for parent management
- KidSmart apps require Wi-Fi
- Limited schoolwork tools
The best thing about Troomi is that you, as the parent, can decide exactly which apps and features your child has access to. The most basic features include text messaging and audio calling, with useful extras like text monitoring and phone number safelisting. There are also kid-safe basic apps like calculator, calendar, maps, and weather.
As for the other apps, you will decide whether they’re allowed to be downloaded and used. Troomi recommends starting with just basic features and then unlocking more as your child learns how to better use a smartphone.
You can also download expert-approved KidSmart Safe Apps that range from educational to creativity-enhancing. Instead of Google Play, however, Troomi has its own app repository. Additionally, you have complete control over app downloads via the Parent Portal, which is a web dashboard for parents.
That said, one downside of Troomi is that you’ll need a browser to access the Parent Portal. You’ll also need a monthly plan for call and text, and only the most expensive plan offers access to KidSmart Safe Apps.
Who it’s best for: The Troomi phone is best for tweens or teens that are almost ready for a smartphone but still need a little bit of hand-holding and a more kid-friendly digital environment than what Android or iPhones provide.
Jiobit Smart Tag
If your child is too young for a smartphone but you want a way to reliably and efficiently keep an eye on their whereabouts as they start to explore the neighborhood on their own, the Jiobit Smart Tag is a wise choice.
The Smart Tag is a screenless tracker that attaches easily to a backpack or your child’s clothing. It pings its location, and you can track it using a smartphone app. It’s a simple, foolproof location tracking device that’s perfect for younger kids.
What We Like
- Screen-free and distraction-free
- GPS, 5G, and Wi-Fi for accurate location tracking
- Geofencing alerts
- Encrypted location data
What We Don’t Like
- Requires a monthly fee
- Short battery life
- No emergency messaging or two-way talk
- Enabling features to improve accuracy results in faster battery drainage
Although it’s a simple location tracker, the Jiobit Smart Tag offers a couple of useful safety features.
First, the location data it sends to you is encrypted. This means only you can see your child’s location and not potential bad guys. You can also request to delete all your data at any time.
Second, the Smart Tag has a geofencing alert system. You can set up custom locations and receive alerts when your child enters or leaves the premises. This is useful, for example, in keeping tabs on whether your little one got home safe from school.
Lastly, there’s a built-in SOS function. By pressing the SOS button on the device, your child can alert you when they are in potential danger. You’ll receive a notification on your phone with location data from the Smart Tags.
Who it’s best for: The Jiobit Smart Tag is best for younger children who are just starting to explore the world, especially if they go home from school on their own.
Conclusion: Are Smartphone Alternatives Safe?
That’s it for our list of the best smartphone alternatives, but one question remains: Are these smartphone alternatives safe for kids?
Giving your youngster any of the smartphone alternatives we mentioned is definitely safer than giving them a smartphone before they are ready. The key word there is “safer.” Even though these alternatives don’t have the usual dangers of smartphone ownership, they come with warnings of their own. For example, some of the options we mentioned offer texting and calling capabilities, which, when left unchecked, could expose your child to cyberbullying, spam and junk messages, and even smishing, a form of phishing done through texts. But with that said, these options are still better alternatives to a smartphone.
As parents, we should never let our guard down, regardless of what device our kids use. We should always be attentive to potential dangers. And remember: These alternatives are not just a way for us to train our children; they’re a way for us to train ourselves on how to better protect them once they’re ready for a smartphone.
To cap off this post, let’s answer some of the most frequently asked questions about smartphone alternatives and digital safety.
Are flip phones a good alternative to smartphones?
If you want to give your child a way to communicate with you but they’re not ready for a smartphone yet, a flip phone is a good alternative. However, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.
First, if your child’s peers have smartphones, giving them a flip phone might expose them to ridicule or even bullying. Talk to your child first and ask how they feel about getting a flip phone.
Second, even though flip phones are generally safer because they don’t have access to apps and social media, there are some dangers to text messaging and calling. You should talk to your child about cyberbullying and text/call scams.
At what age should I buy my kid a smartphone?
There is no “right” age to buy a kid a smartphone. A number of factors should be considered, including their understanding of digital dangers, their ability to manage their time, and their willingness to comply with limits and rules that you set.
What are the dangers of smartphones?
The smartphone is a powerful tool that can give your child unfettered access to the internet, social media, and apps. Uncontrolled, it could expose your child to digital dangers like online predators, scams, identity theft, and cyberbullying.
When is it OK to let my child use social media?
Most social media platforms set the age limit to 13 years, but it really depends on how mature your child is. Regardless, if your child is ready to set up a social media account, you should closely monitor their use. You must set a screen time limit, adjust the privacy settings, and monitor who they talk to.
Are educational apps safe for kids?
Almost any educational app promises to be safe for kids, and for the most part, they are right. However, there should always be a limit on how long your kid can stay on those apps. Too much screen time, even on educational apps, can still cause problems in your child’s mental development.
Arnold L. Glass & Mengxue Kang (2019) Dividing attention in the classroom reduces exam performance, Educational Psychology, 39:3, 395-408, DOI: 10.1080/01443410.2018.1489046