An Apple Watch for your 5-year-old? More parents say yes

(Photo: NYTimes)
Florian Fangohr waffled for about a year over whether to buy an Apple Watch SE as a gift. The smartwatch cost $279, and he worried that its recipient would immediately break or lose it. In May, he decided the benefits outweighed the costs and bought the gadget.اضافة اعلان

The beneficiary: his eight-year-old son, Felix.

Fangohr, a 47-year-old product designer in Seattle, said he was aware that many people were pessimistic about technology’s creep into children’s lives. But “within the framework of the watch, I don’t feel scared,” he said. “I want him to explore.”

Felix, a rising third grader, said he actually wanted a smartphone.

Parents are increasingly buying Apple Watches and strapping them onto the wrists of children as young as five, across the US. The goal: to use the devices as a stopgap cellphone for the kids. With the watch’s cellular abilities, parents can use it to reach, and track their children, while the miniature screens mitigate issues like internet addiction.

Children and teenagers appear to have become a disproportionately large market for smartwatches as a whole. In a 2020 survey of American teenagers by the investment bank Piper Sandler, 31 percent said they owned a smartwatch. That same year, 21 percent of adults in the US said they owned one, according to the Pew Research Center.

The use of smartwatches as a children’s gadget shows how the audience for a consumer technology product can morph in unexpected ways. It has also given new life to the Apple Watch, which was unveiled in 2015 and has been variously positioned as a fitness tracker, a style statement, or a way to free yourself from an iPhone.

Apple has deliberately turned the watch into a device that can be attractive for children and their parents. In 2020, the company released the Apple Watch SE, which had fewer features than a premium model and was priced $120 cheaper. Apple also introduced Family Setup, software that let parents track their children’s locations, manage their contacts list and limit their notifications.

The Silicon Valley company’s moves to make the Apple Watch a child-friendly cellphone took about three years, said two people involved with the project, who were not authorized to speak publicly. A chief concern was battery life, since the watch used more power when it functioned independently from an iPhone, they said.

Any technology used by children raises questions of risks and harms. Social media platforms in particular have faced scrutiny in recent years, with lawmakers holding congressional hearings on the issue in 2021 and homing in on whether sites like Instagram led to poor self-esteem among teenagers.

But smartwatches are inherently limited in their abilities, said Jim Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that reviews media and technology for families. Since smartwatches have minimal apps and no web browser or camera, children are less likely to be exposed to distracting games or other adult content, he said. Not owning a smartphone also encourages children to continue learning how to do things independently, like completing homework assignments without looking up answers online, he said.

Still, buying a smartwatch for children can hook them to technology early. When young people use a product, they tend to remain loyal to the brand as they grow up and become working professionals, analysts said.

Jon Desi and his wife recently used an Apple Watch SE as training wheels for a smartphone for their daughter, Catie, when she was 10. When she started playing outside more at the beginning of the pandemic, they couldn’t find an “old-style phone” so their daughter would have more freedom to venture around their neighborhood in Hunt Valley, Maryland, they said. They settled on the Apple Watch instead.

“We wanted to give her a way to communicate without giving her Pandora’s box at the age of 10,” Desi said.

But the watch came with a stipulation: Catie had to charge it and wear it regularly, answer when they called and text back in a reasonable amount of time to receive a smartphone.

It became “the carrot to enforce responsible behaviors,” Desi said.

In July, he and his wife purchased an iPhone for Catie, now 11, and handed her Apple Watch down to their 10-year-old son, Tommy. When their five-year-old daughter, Ellie, is older, they anticipate handing down the Apple Watch again.

A smartwatch is not a guaranteed delay to a cellphone. Todd Golub and his wife, who live in New York City, gave an Apple Watch SE to their son Ronan when he was 10, as he began exploring the city by himself. The watch was more difficult to break and lose than a phone, and Ronan used its mobile wallet to pay for food and public transit.

But last fall, they bought an iPhone for Ronan, now 12, when he entered middle school because all his schoolmates had smartphones. Golub, 49, said he would have preferred to introduce a smartphone at least a year later but worried his son would feel like he was missing out.

Read more Education

Jordan News