A tween tries out Apple's new "Household Setup" system for Apple Watch
With the release of watchOS 7, Apple finally made the Apple Watch the GPS-based kid tracker parents have wanted, but at a price that requires careful consideration. As someone in the target group for such a device – a parent of a "tween" who is allowed to move around freely in the neighborhood (but not without some kind of communication device) – I have the new family setup system for the Apple Watch on my heart Kidneys checked in the past few months.
The result? To be honest, I've been conflicted over whether I would recommend the Apple Watch to another parent instead of just suggesting it was time to get the kid a phone.
This has in part to do with the benefits of a dedicated family tracking solution – such as Life360 – as well as a child's reaction to the Apple Watch itself and the quirks of using a solution that didn't exist. It was originally developed with the needs of family persecution in mind.
As the parent of a busy and active tween (nearly 11), I can see the initial appeal of an Apple Watch as a family tracker. It has everything you need for this purpose: GPS tracking, call and text functions, alerts and access to emergency help. In theory, it's easy to keep up with, and it's not as expensive as a new iPhone. (The new Apple Watch SE cellular models start at $ 329. The feature also works on older Apple Watch Series 4 models or later with cellular. Adding the Apple Watch to your calling plan typically costs about $ 10 more per month .)
I think the Apple Watch as a kid tracker primarily appeals to a specific parent type: one who is concerned about the dangers of giving a younger child a phone and thereby giving them access to the world of addicting apps and the broader internet . I understand this concern, but personally I disagree with the idea that you should wait until a child is “older”, then give them a phone and say, “Okay, good luck with that!” You need a transition period and that Age range "Tween" is an ideal time frame to get started.
The reality is that smartphones and technology are inevitable. As a parent, I think it's my job to introduce these things in small steps – for example with parental controls and screen time limits. And then I have to monitor their usage. I can make mistakes, and so can my daughter, but we both need those extra years figuring out how to balance parenting and the use of digital tools. With a phone, I know I need to have tough conversations about the problems we encounter. I also understand why parents want to put this off and just buy a watch instead.
In my experience, I feel that the only times I would fully endorse the Apple Watch are in families with no technology or without technology, where children are never given phones, households where the use of Phones for children is severely restricted (such as those with Wi-Fi-only phones) or those that children don't get phones until their later teens. I'm not here to convince them of my alternative, perhaps more progressive, view of when to give a child a phone. The Apple Watch can make sense for these families, and that's their prerogative.
However, some may wonder if the Apple Watch can be a temporary solution for a year or two before they buy the kid a smartphone. For them, I have to say that this is an expensive way to delay the inevitable, inevitable task of raising your child through the digital age.
Given my position on this matter, my only major caveat with this review is that my daughter actually owns a smartphone. Also, let's be clear: this isn't a thorough review of the Apple Watch itself or a detailed report of its various "specs". It is a subjective account of how we fared that I hope you can learn from.
At first, configuring the new Apple Watch with Family Setup was easy. “Set up for a family member” is one of two setup options you can tap to get started. Apple offers a simple user interface that walks you through pairing the watch with your phone and making all the necessary decisions, such as: B. Activating the mobile phone, activating "Request to buy" for app purchases, activating school time and activity features and much more.
It was more difficult to use the Apple Watch as intended after configuration. I found it much easier to start an iPhone app (like Life360 that we use) that has everything you need in one place. This was found to be incorrect for the Apple Watch Family setup system.
To test the Apple Watch with Family Setup, my daughter left her iPhone behind when she rode a bike or met friends for outdoor activities.
As a kid who worked their way up to an iPhone over a few years, I have to admit that I was surprised at how irresponsible she was with the watch for the first few weeks.
At first, she didn't respect the multi-hundred dollar device at all, treating it more like her junk jewelry or her wrist-worn hair ties. The Apple Watch has been tossed on a dresser, bathroom counter, kitchen table, beanbag, etc.
Fortunately, the Find My app can find the Apple Watch if it has a battery and a signal. But I'm not going to lie – there were some scary moments where a dead clock was later found on the back of a toilet (!!) on top of the piano and once abandoned with a friend.
And that from a child who always knows where their iPhone is!
The problem is that after years of practicing, she has learned to be responsible for her iPhone. That made me believe she was actually responsible for expensive equipment. For two years we painfully sifted through a couple of low-end Android phones while she got the hang of keeping up with and maintaining such a device. Although we put these starter phones in protective cases, we lost one to a screen smashing accident on a tile floor and another to a car being run over. (How it flew out of a bag in the middle of the street I'll never understand!)
But at some point she earned access to a traditional iPhone. And after the phone was initially only allowed to be used indoors via WLAN, it is now outdoors and has its own telephone number. And she's been careful with it in the months since. (Um, knock on wood.)
However, the Apple Watch didn't have such a high status for them. It wasn't a deserved privilege. It wasn't fun. It wasn't filled with favorite apps and games. Instead, it was encountered.
While the iPhone is widely used for fun and addicting activities like Roblox, TikTok, Disney +, and Netflix, the Apple Watch was boring by comparison. Sure, there are a couple of things you can do on the device – it has an app store! You can make a memoji! You can customize different watch faces! Unless this is your child's first access to technology, these features may be of limited appeal.
“Do you want to download this game? It looks funny, ”I suggested, pointing to a drawing game when we looked at her watch together one night.
"No thanks," she replied.
"I just don't think the small screen would be good."
"Maybe another game?"
And that's it. I couldn't convince them to try a single Apple Watch app in the days that followed.
She didn't even want to stream music to the Apple Watch – that's why she has Alexa, she emphasized. She didn't want to play a game on the clock – she has Roblox on the bigger screen of her hand-me-down laptop. She also has a Nintendo Switch handheld.
First, she picked an Apple Watch face that suited her current "aesthetic" – simple and neutral – and that was the level of interest she had in personalizing the device over the first few weeks.
Having already burned myself out at Memoji by borrowing my phone to play with the feature when it launched, despite my suggestions to give it a try, there wasn't as much interest in doing more with the customized avatar creation process to do. (She had already made a Memoji for her profile photo for her contact card on the iPhone.)
However, I later showed her the Memoji Watch Face option after I set it up and asked her if she liked it. She replied, “YES. I love it, ”and took the watch out of my hand to play more.
Demo functions seem important.
But for the most part, the Apple Watch was only buckled up at my request as she walked out the door.
It soon became routine.
"Can I go outside and play?"
"Yes. Wear the watch!" I would answer.
It took her over a month to remember the clock herself.
I have to admit, I didn't fully demonstrate the Apple Watch to her or explain how to use it in detail, save for a few basics in the first few weeks. I could have made her an expert, but I think it's important to realize that many parents are less tech-savvy than their children. The kids are often left on their own when it comes to devices, and this particular kid has had multiple devices. Because of this, I was curious about how a kid with fairly technical skills who switched from iPad to Android to iPhone and switched from Windows to Mac to Chromebook would now adapt to an Apple Watch.
As it turned out, she found it a little confusing.
"What do you think of the clock?" I asked one evening and felt her for an opinion.
"It's fun … but sometimes I don't really get it," she replied.
"What you do not understand?"
"I don't know. Just … almost everything," she said dramatically, like tweens do. "Sometimes I don't know how to turn the volume up or down."
As I nudged, I realized she meant this: She was confused about how to adjust the alarm volume for messages and notifications, how to change the clock from phone calls to vibrate, or do not disturb calls entirely. (It was her only real complaint, but annoying enough to be "almost anything" I guess!)
I will now translate what I have learned here from children's language.
Since the "Do Not Disturb" option is accessible via a swipe gesture, it is initially clear that my daughter has not fully explored the watch's user interface. It didn't occur to her that the iPhone's swipe gestures would have their own Apple Watch counterparts. (And why swipe up from the bottom of the screen for the Control Center if this stopped working on the iPhone? Now on the iPhone, swipe down from the top right to get to the Control Center features.)
And she definitely hadn't seen the tiny Settings app (the gear icon) on the Apple Watch's home screen to make further changes.
Instead, she expected that you could either use a button on the side to manage the volume – you know, like a phone – or maybe the digital crown since that's available here. But those physical features of the device led them – confusingly – to these "don't care" things like the home screen and an app switcher, even though they believed calls, notifications, and alerts were the main function of the app.
And why do you have to zoom in on the home screen by turning the digital crown? At this point, she wasn't even using the apps. There weren't that many on the screen.
Curious as she wasn't interested in the current suite of apps, I asked for feedback.
“What kind of apps do you want?” I asked.
"Roblox and TikTok."
"Roblox ?!" I said with a laugh. "How would that even work?"
As it turned out, she didn't want to play Roblox on her watch. She wanted to reply to her incoming messages and join her group chats from her watch.
Oh. This is actually a reasonable idea. After all, the Apple Watch is a messaging device.
And since many kids their age don't have a phone or can't use a messaging app like Snapchat or Instagram, they swap Roblox usernames and in-game friends to get around that limitation. They then send each other a message to set up virtual or even real viewing appointments if they live nearby.
However, the iOS version of the Roblox mobile app doesn't have an Apple Watch counterpart.
"And TikTok?" I thought that was weird too.
But the fact that Apple Watch is not exactly an ideal video player is lost. It is a device with a screen that is connected to the internet. Why isn't that enough, she wondered?
"You could look through popular TikToks," she suggested. "You wouldn't have to create an account or anything," she clarified, as if those details would fix the only problems she saw with her proposal.
Even if the technology was there, a TikTok experience on the small screen would never be a great one. However, this shows how much interest in technology, compared to the technology platform itself, is directly related to the apps and games available.
Other built-in features were even less attractive than the app suite.
Although during the setup process I had some basic activity features set up, such as: B. a "displacement target", she had no idea what it was all about. So I showed her the "rings" and how they worked, and she found it pretty neat that the Apple Watch could keep track of where they were. There was no real interest or excitement in being able to quantify her daily movement, however – at least not until a day many weeks later when she was hiking and she heard my watch ring as my rings closed and tried to do the same to her. She was interested in recording her steps for this hike, but interest was not sustained afterwards.
Apple said it built in the activity features so kids can track their exercise goal and make progress. But I would guess that a lot of children don't care even when they are active. After all, kids play – they don't think how much I've played? Have I moved enough today? "And they really shouldn't.
As a parent, I can see their data in the health app on my iPhone, the device I use to manage their Apple Watch. It may be interesting to see how their steps went or flights climbed. However, this isn't entirely useful as your Apple Watch won't be worn all day. (She finds the bands uncomfortable – we tried Sport Band and Sport Loop and she's still playing with them all the time, trying to reset them for more convenience.)
Later on, if for any reason I wanted to change her activity goals, I had to do so right from her watch.
Of course, a parent won't buy an Apple Watch for a child to keep track of their exercises. This applies to the location tracking functions. This is the only real reason parents would consider this device for a younger child.
In this regard, I liked that the watch was a GPS tracker that was looped into our Apple household ecosystem as a separate device with its own phone number. I loved that I could ping the watch with "Find My" if it was lost – and it was lost a lot, I noticed. I loved that I could manage the watch from my iPhone as it is very difficult to repurchase a device to make changes once it has been given to someone else.
I also liked that the Apple Watch was always available. This could actually have been one of the greatest benefits. Unlike my daughter's iPhone, which ran 10 to 20% battery (or much less) almost constantly, the watch was constantly charged and ready when it was time for an outdoor game.
I loved that it was easier for her to answer a call on the Apple Watch than to dig her phone out of her bike basket or bag. I loved that she didn't have to worry about clinging to her cell phone all the time.
I also appreciated that I could create geofenced alerts – for example when she reached the park or a friend's house, or when she left. But I didn't like that the option to do so is buried in the "Find My" app. (You tap the child's name on the People tab. Under Notifications, tap Add. Tap Notify. Tap New Location. Search for an address or location. Tap Done.)
I didn't like that either, when I created a recurring geofence, my daughter was notified. Yes, privacy. I know! But who is responsible here? My daughter is a kid, not a teenager. She knows the Apple Watch is a GPS tracker – we had this conversation. She knows I can see where she is. She is young and doesn't feel like a data breach for the time being. We'll have that discussion later, I'm sure. She currently likes the feel of that electronic leash at home as she experiments with expanding the boundaries of her world.
When I optimize and update recurring warnings for geofenced locations, such warnings can be confusing or even worrying. I appreciate that Apple is being transparent about trying to give children a chance to understand that they are being followed. However, I would also argue that most parents who suddenly give their child an expensive watch will explain why they do so. This is a tool, not a toy.
The interface for configuring geofences is also cumbersome. By comparison, the Life360 family tracking app we usually use has a screen where you just tap Add, search for the location, and you're done. A single tap on a bell symbol next to the location turns the warnings on or off. (You can describe everything in detail: recurring, one-time, arrives, goes, etc – but you don't have to. Just tap and get notified. It's easier.)
One feature that I liked on the Apple Watch, but unfortunately couldn't really use it, was School Time Mode – a kind of remote, scheduled version of Do Not Disturb. This feature blocks apps and complications and enables the Do Not Disturb setting for the kids as emergency calls and notifications break through. (Make sure you set up shared contacts so you can manage this aspect.)
Currently, thanks to this pandemic, we have no use for school days. My daughter is going to school remotely this year. I imagine how helpful this could one day when she returns to class.
But I also worry that other kids will judge them for their expensive device when I send them to class with the Apple Watch. I worry that teachers (who don't know anything about school days) will judge me for wearing it. I worry that kids will desire it and ask to try it on. I am concerned that a child will run away with it and give teachers an additional disciplinary headache. I'm worried that it might get smashed in the playground or during PE class, or it might somehow fall off because she interfered with the band for the umpteenth time. I'm worried that she'll take it off because "the strap is so annoying" (as I've been told) and then leave it in her desk.
I don't worry that much about the iPhone at school because school policies keep it in her backpack all the time. It doesn't sit on her arm as a constant temptation, "school days" mode or any other way.
The Apple Watch Family Setup is also not a solution that, when compared to other family tracking solutions, adapts to the growing age of the child to the growing demands of monitoring teenagers.
To continue the Life360 comparison, the app now offers features for teenage drivers, and their new privacy-related location bubbles for teenagers now give them more autonomy. Apple's family tracking solution becomes more limited as the child ages.
For example, Schooltime doesn't work on an iPhone. Once the child has upgraded to an iPhone, you should use Parental Controls and Screen Time features to manage which apps are allowed and when they can use their device. It seems like a good transition step to the phone is a way to keep school time mode on on the kid's next device as well.
If you opt for the Apple Watch's Family Setup features instead, you will soon have a child who now owns both an Apple Watch and a smartphone. (Sure, you could revive it or take it back, I suppose … I definitely wish you the best of luck if you try!)
Aside from the over-acceptance of consumption when buying an Apple Watch for a child, the biggest complaint I had was that I could use three different apps to manage and view data on my daughter's Apple Watch. I could see that her tracked activity was being tracked on my health app. Location tracking and geofence were configured in the Find My app. The remote configuration of the Apple Watch itself, including school days, was found in my watch mobile app.
I understand that Apple designed the watch as a personal device to be used with one person and had to stretch to make it a family tracking system. But what Apple is doing here is really just pairing the children's watch with the parents' iPhone and then tackling additional functions such as school days. It was not viewed as an entirely new system designed from the ground up for families or for their growing needs as the child grows.
As a result, the entire system feels underdeveloped compared to existing family tracking solutions. With so many things to configure, customize, and monitor, Family Setup deserves its own app, or at least its own tab on a parent's Watch app, to make it easier to use.
Ultimately, the Apple Watch is a solution when you let your child out into the world – beyond school and supervised play dates – but it may not be the best solution for your needs. If you have specific reasons why your child isn't getting their own phone now or soon, the Apple Watch might be working. If you don't have these reasons, it may be time to try a smartphone.
Both Apple and Google are now offering robust parental control solutions for their smartphone platforms that can help alleviate many parents' concerns about addiction to content and apps. And given the cost of a new Apple Watch, the savings aren't there – especially when entry-level Android phones or other hand-me-down phones are considered as alternatives.
(Apple provided a loaner device for this review. My daughter was cited and quoted with permission, but asked that her name not be used.)