There are many reasons to avoid buying a smartphone for a kid. Not least of which is that they’re not mature enough for one. And that, despite offering assurances they won’t use it to watch YouTube videos, they plan to use it to watch nothing but YouTube videos. How to know whether your child is ready for a basic phone, let alone a smartphone, isn’t easy.
But what if you have a younger child (say under the age of 10) and being able to talk to them — either after school or from a friend’s house — would make your busy life easier? Or what if you just want your kid to be able to call (or send an alert) in an emergency? Both are valid reasons to give a kid a basic cell phone. Then, of course, the question becomes what are the best starter cell phones out there that won’t send a kid spiraling into a selfie addiction or screen time addiction?
To help you decide, we took a look at the current offering of dumb phones and basic phones designed or targeted toward kids (or, in some cases, seniors) and selected the best of the lot. Some are worn on the wrist so they won’t get lost. Others have limited texting but no internet, and feature an SOS button in case of emergency. One, no joke, can make full video calls. They range in price from $30 to $199 and are designed to handle all the hard knocks that come with being a kid, and still be able to call home at the end of baseball practice.
1. Blu Tank Xtreme 2.4
The Blu Tank’s appeal is its simplicity ⏤ this is a pretty much just a phone. Kids can old-school text (tediously punching in numbers to find the right letter) and it has a built-in FM radio. But the point is really to have a cheap (and relatively rugged) phone on which they can call home and vice-versa. That said, there is a small screen for texting, and it could be used to see photos. Also, the Blu Tank doesn’t work on CDMA networks like Sprint, Verizon Wireless, Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, only GSM ones like AT&T and T-Mobile.
The coolest feature on the incredibly kid-centric DokiWatch is straight out of a science fiction/spy movie: two-way video calls. Seriously, Apple, Samsung, and LG still haven’t slapped a camera on a watch yet, but this small Hong Kong-based startup is all over it. The watch also snaps regular pictures and makes regular voice calls, so all of the bases are covered. The Doki provides GPS tracking and alerts ⏤ if your child leaves a geo-fenced area, you’ll get a notification on your phone ⏤ and holding down the SOS button not only alerts everyone on the parent-defined contact list but also turns on both the camera and mic to record your child’s surrounds, as well as display their GPS location. Finally, it features a calendar function (for chores and reminders), an in-class silent mode that prevents them from interacting with the device unless there’s an emergency, and can operate with any SIM card, so you’re not tied to a specific plan or network.
3. Nokia 3310 3G
If the Nokia 3310 was good enough to be your first phone in 2000, then it’s just fine to be your kid’s first too. The only difference, of course, is that you were in college and your kid is eight. Nokia rebooted its classic brick phone last year as a way for over-stimulated adults to disconnect, but the 3310 is actually the perfect starter phone for young kids. It can make calls, send texts, and boasts an FM radio and MP3 player. Even better, while the phone has a 2MP rear camera with flash (so they can still take fun pics with their friends), there’s no front camera. And thus, thankfully, no selfies. It comes in four fun colors, costs $60, and best of all, the battery lasts up to a month on standby ⏤ so you rarely have to worry about it being dead.
4. GreatCall Jitterbug Flip
Designed primarily for seniors (which is also why it’s great for children), the Jitterbug is a bright red flip phone with big numbers, a large screen, and few bells and whistles. The simple menu is easy to navigate with giant “Yes/No” buttons, the battery is long-lasting, and there’s even a camera so they can take pictures. And when they’re finally ready to upgrade to a smartphone, the basic Jitterbug Smart is an easy transition.
Targeted to younger kids, Kigowatch is less a full-fledged phone than a sophisticated GPS tracker with some simple, but effective non-voice communication features. It’s designed for you to stay in touch with your child, not for them to stay in touch with friends. Using an app on your phone, you send emoji-like images to your child that convey a specific message (you’re on your way to pick them up, it’s time for dinner, etc.) They then can send simple responses back so you know they received the message. There’s also an SOS feature that when activated notifies every contact, and geofencing sends alerts to your phone should they stray out of the area. It’s rugged and waterproof (so kids can wear it in the bath) and nearly unbreakable, making it ideal for young kids. More importantly, it limits communication to the bare essentials, yet still lets you see your child is safe and where they should be. Again, though, it’s not a full phone if you want to hear Junior’s voice.