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The Best Limited-Access Phones

Updated: Nov 25, 2022

A Comparison of Gabb, Pinwheel, Troomi, and Bark Phones



When our oldest was in middle school, a parent’s only option for a limited-access phone (a.k.a. “Dumb phone”) was a flip phone from a wireless company. They were flimsy, possibly embarrassing, and often STILL had internet connections in settings that could not be protected. But if your kid was in sports or some other afterschool commitment, it was the only personal communication device available that wasn’t a smartphone. (Remember pagers? Ah, those were the days…)


Thankfully, the last few years have seen several new safety-first products come to market, giving parents more options to allow their kids some access without throwing them into the deep end of the World Wide Web. We get asked about the major differences between them a lot, so wanted to make that info available here for parents to compare.



Gabb

A true zero-internet phone or watch, and the first one to market.

  • GPS: Parents can see where the phone is, but there is no maps feature for the phone to use GPS

  • APPS: No app store or wifi connection. Installed apps focus on talk/text plus productivity features like calculator, calendar, etc.

  • LIMITS: No time limits available; no ability to limit or supervise contacts added to the phone, limited contact calling available on the watch. Parents can choose a plan that allows or forbids group texts and sending of photos (MMS).

  • MESSAGE MONITORING: No text message monitoring - If you are hoping to supervise message content with a third party app like Bark, it is not possible for the Gabb set up. Parent eyeballs are your only defense. And yes, your kid can delete texts.

  • COVERAGE: Gabb runs on its own network and can not be added to another existing plan; service coverage area and reliability is excellent

  • COST: The cost upfront is the most affordable - less than $100 each, with sales throughout the year that bring them as low as $50 (or sometimes FREE). Monthly charges range from $20- $25, depending on if you choose to allow MMS messaging (for group texts and photos – YES your kid can have a phone that allows zero photo sharing).


Pinwheel

Second to market was the Pinwheel. This is a grow-with-your-child phone that provides limited access to apps and internet at the parent or guardian’s discretion.

  • GPS: Parents can see where the phone is, and kids can access Google Maps, if parents have allowed that app.

  • APPS: Parent portal (dashboard) has a curated app store with only vetted apps considered “safe” available for parents to allow on the phone. (A relatively large number of apps available - around 300). Apps with anything that could be risky in them display a warning label (for example, if there is a backdoor to a browser inside a privacy menu of an app, Pinwheel will notify you).

  • LIMITS: You can put the phone in “modes” like homework or sleep that make different features available or disabled. You can create checklists during homework mode, which is really helpful. You can limit the number of contacts, if you choose.

  • MESSAGE MONITORING: Monitoring of texts can be done from the parent portal, and additional monitoring software can be added such as Bark. Texts can be deleted, but parents can still see them from the dashboard.

  • COVERAGE: Pinwheel can be added as a device to any existing cellular plan.

  • COST: Pinwheel phones range from $200-$330 to purchase, with a monthly fee of about $15 (in addition to your cellular plan costs of adding a line, etc).


Troomi

Next comes Troomi, which serves as a flexible option with features similar to Gabb but also to Pinwheel.

  • GPS: Parents can see where the phone is, and kids can access Google Maps, if parents have allowed that app.

  • APPS: Far fewer apps available than the Pinwheel app store, and a kid-safe browser available with the ability to access pre-approved links only.

  • LIMITS: Parents and guardians can choose for the phone to be talk/text only without MMS (group texts and sending photos) or apps. The phone permissions can be adjusted to include pre-approved apps when the kid is ready for that. Time limits available, contact limits/approvals are the most robust of the three options. “KidSmartOS” is what they call the operating system that allows kids-first customization.

  • MESSAGE MONITORING: Monitoring of texts can be done from the parent portal, and additional monitoring software can be added such as Bark. Texts can be deleted, but parents can still see them from the dashboard.

  • COVERAGE: Troomi operates on it’s own network so can not be added to existing plans. It does boast of being spam-free, which is a big bonus for new/young phone users.

  • COST: Phones range between $180-$280, monthly plans are $15-$25 depending on the amount of access the phone has been granted.

Bark Phone

Finally, the long-anticipate Bark Phone, which offers the highest level of filtering AND monitoring features. It’s the newest of the four.

  • GPS: Parents can see where the phone is, and kids can access Google Maps, if parents have allowed that app.

  • APPS: The entire Google Play app store is available for the parents to approve or block apps from on the Phone.

  • LIMITS: A full suite of customizable permissions available to limit time or features, including a disabled hot spot.

  • MESSAGE MONITORING: Bark uses machine learning to monitor instances of a host of harmful indicators from sexual content to profanity to depression.

  • COVERAGE: Parents can choose from a wifi-only experience or a data plan. For cellular data, it comes with its own network (you don't add it to your existing plan) and coverage is only in the US.

  • COST: The Bark Phone and its service plan are packaged together for a flat $49/mo.

Recommendations

Which limited-access phone you choose really depends on your needs as a family and the ages of the children you are parenting. Entrusting a child to keep track of a new device brings some inherent risk into the picture, so you may determine it’s best to start with something under $100 knowing they will likely lose or break it the first six months. If I had an 8-year-old that I just wanted to communicate with on the school bus with and locate, I would choose a Gabb watch. If I had a 13-year-old going to a new middle school where apps would likely be utilized duing the school day, I would choose a Pinwheel. If I had a phone my tweens could share at the house for needed basics, I would choose Troomi.


The bottom line is: once you cross the threshold of phone ownership, your parenting chops have to adjust. Some things might get easier (checklists for homework might be divine) and some things might get harder (weirdo kid down the street texting your child at all hours). Just make sure you cross that threshold intentionally, with the mindset of “This is new for you, son/daughter, I’ll give you grace to learn; it’s new for me too, please give me grace as I learn how to protect you in this new area.”


Never fear, if you decide it’s too soon to introduce a personal mobile device, there are stil parents like us preaching the value of DELAY, DELAY, DELAY. Students who have personal technology too early may easily veer into entitlement and distraction. If in doubt, DELAY. Let kids be kids!




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