Kids & Screens: Feature Phones for Children
"Daddy, can I have a phone?"
"What do you need a phone for? You're only 10."
"Everyone in my class has a smartphone already."
"That's not a reason for you to have a phone. I think you're too young."
I believe it is ok to say 'no' to your children when they ask for a networked device or an account on a social media platform. It may sound old-fashioned, but you can only relinquish your 'no' once; after that, it's difficult to backtrack.
There are some social media platforms I am planning to say 'no' to for a long time, perhaps even for all time. TikTok, for example. The more I learn about it, the more problems I see. But discussions about social media is a topic for another post.
What is the right age for a smartphone? I was genuinely surprised to learn all my child's classmates have smartphones already, and that they bring these to school. Then again, last year I also learned that those same classmates had been watching Squid Game on Netflix, presumably unsupervised. I don't mind violence in films, TV shows or video games for my own entertainment, but I watched one episode of Squid Game to see what the fuss was about, and there is just no way that is appropriate viewing for elementary school children. So the argument that all peers are already doing something is not necessarily a sound one.
My gut tells me that the age of twelve - middle school - is possibly a good time to begin having conversations about smartphones. Being The Privacy Dad, any child of mine will be getting a de-Googled smartphone, with lengthy, boring explanations about operating systems to boot.
The situation with my youngest came to a head when a scheduling change meant that my child needed to be able to contact me at work. Suddenly, we really needed a phone. I still felt cautious about handing over a smartphone to someone that young, because smartphones open up access to all kinds of features beyond calling and texting: messenger apps with group chats, portable access to YouTube, Internet browsing, app stores and all the social media apps.
I did not want to have to supervise all of the above, so I investigated feature phones for children. I've already written about using 'dumbphones' as a way to ensure some level of digital minimalism for myself, but the purpose here was different. My child did not need a Wi-Fi hotspot tool, for example, and this opened up a lot of extremely cheap feature phone options.
Because I have had good experiences with Nokia phones, their battery life in particular, I decided on the Nokia 110 4G. It only does the basics: calling, texting and, of course, Snake. There is no app store. It has a simple camera, and you can listen to MP3s or FM radio. There is a browser, but it is practically unusable. It has an alarm clock and a calendar. I like that on Nokia's website, the slogan for this phone is 'Stay entertained all day.' I am assuming that must be a reference to the long battery life, and not to the device's limited features.
While most Internet Service Providers will enable you to add a new SIM card and number to the family account, I found it was actually much cheaper to just get a prepaid SIM card. Luckily, these are still sold today.
For the price of two paperback Stephen King novels, your child can have a working phone that enables calling and texting, but rules out all the rest. Handing over an electronic device and giving your child responsibility for it may also placate the smartphone discussion for a time. It's a good learning experience with low financial risk. And, as I've stated before, Nokia feature phones are very robust.
Because a dumbphone lacks the addictive and attractive features and apps, it can be forgotten about altogether. While the battery life is indeed long (whole days), your child may forget to charge the phone prior to when it's needed, or to bring it to school, and then you're back to square one.
Depending on the social environment at school, some children may be embarrassed to be seen with a feature phone. It does look dated. My middle child, who brings a dumbphone to school and keeps a smartphone at home, has turned the device's robustness into a running joke with friends, without adverse social effects. My youngest doesn't seem to mind the Nokia, so far at least. I've also been pleased to discover that at least one other family is sending their child to school with a feature phone like we are.
My youngest is not able to participate directly in family group chats on Signal or WhatsApp for the moment. I may investigate using the SIM card number to join these groups on the desktop versions of messenger apps.
Current use and looking ahead
A time will inevitably come when real discussions about smartphones will have to be had. As stated above, I think middle school is a more appropriate time for this conversation than elementary school.
Information page about the Nokia 110.
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