For Children, Dumbed-Down Phones May Be Smartest Option


The logic seems simple, impeccable even.

When children put a smartphone at the top of their wish list, remind them that they don’t need any such thing. Talking and texting may be necessary, but roving Internet access is not. So a dumbphone it is, with voice service and unlimited texting — just to show you care and are no Scrooge. Throw in a nice Qwerty keyboard as a sign of parental generosity, but no, repeat, no data plan at all.

If only it were that easy.

Whether parents like it or not, most new phones these days come with the ability to access the Internet. Perhaps not enough mothers and fathers are holding their ground to make a market for manufacturers of stripped-down hardware. Or maybe the device makers and service providers want Instagram, Snapchat and the various app stores within every new user’s reach.

Whatever the reason, parents picking out a child’s first phone will need to plan carefully if they want it to be both modest and teach a few money lessons.

 First, those of you seeking that holy grail of voice plus texting and a full Qwerty keyboard (but no option for Internet service) will find few readily available choices for sale. T-Mobile doesn’t sell dumbphones at all, in fact
One good hardware option (aside from reactivating an older phone of your own and hoping it will work on today’s networks) is the Alcatel Onetouch flip phone. Sprint offers that one (as do prepaid wireless services like Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile). The phone can text, but it lacks a physical keyboard beyond the numbers.
Just to remind you of your stubbornness — and to give your children a new name to call you — Sprint and Virgin call this device the Retro. Boost refers to its Onetouch as the Fling, which might describe the relationship between an entitled teenager’s arm and the nearest wall Christmas morning.

One possibility for avoiding long faces is the text- and voice-only Punkt phone, which is cool enough to have become an object of luston design blogs this year. The voice-onlyLight Phone that should arrive in 2016 should offer an even more stripped-down experience.

Parents who are already in the game know that if you’re willing to set strict hardware boundaries aside, you can often use the carriers’ parental controls to render a smartphone permanently dumb (by blocking all Internet access via a data plan, say), or at least temporarily so (by blocking the Internet at certain times each day or after incidents of wretched behavior). So perhaps you start by agreeing to buy the cheapest smartphone or handing down your old one.

Then, you can restrict usage in all sorts of ways, though the carriers will often charge you a small monthly fee for the privilege of reining in your children. Smart Limits from AT&T, Mobile Controls from Sprint (Android only), FamilyWhere and Family Allowances from T-Mobile, andFamilyBase from Verizon (not available with Android Marshmallow) are the services.

The offerings may include alerts when children travel outside certain areas, the ability to turn text and Internet data service off during certain hours of the day or designated sleeping hours, overall monthly limits on usage of various sorts and approved (and disapproved) contacts.

But if you’re convinced, as I am, that a child’s first phone ought to be a financial exercise, too, check out a service called Ting. It does not offer any texting-only phones; the company finds that, believe it or not, they now cost more than smartphones, when it can find them at all.

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