September 2, 2022
lorian Fangohr waffled for about a year over whether to buy an Apple Watch SE as a gift. The smart watch cost $279, and he worried that its recipient would immediately break it or lose it. In May, he decided the benefits outweighed the costs and bought the gadget.
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. “But the watch is still really, really nice,” he said.
Across the United States, parents are increasingly buying Apple Watches and strapping them onto the wrists of children as young as five. 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 smart watches. In a 2020 survey of American teenagers by the investment bank Piper Sandler, 31% said they owned a smart watch. That same year, 21% of adults in the United States said they owned one, according to the Pew Research Center.
The use of smart watches 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 enables parents to 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.
Apple plans to compete more aggressively soon for young smart watch customers. The company’s COO, Jeff Williams, said, “For family members who do not have an iPhone, Apple Watch offers a remarkable set of features that can help them keep in touch with loved ones, [and help them to]be more active and stay safe.” The company declined to comment on the new watches at its coming event.
Any technology used by children raises questions of risks. 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 have led to poor self-esteem among teenagers.
But smart watches 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 smart watches have minimal apps and no web browser or camera, children are less likely to be exposed to distracting games, sexting and 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.
“You want to be able to contact them, but you don’t want them spending all day on a screen,” Steyer said.
Jean M. Twenge, who writes books on how tech contributes to generational differences, added that the longer that parents could hold off on providing children with a smartphone—and increased accessibility to social media and other internet wormholes—the better.
Receiving a smartphone later means children “will be older, more mature, and more able to handle the challenges and potential dangers of having their own smartphone,” she commented.
Research contact: @nytimes