Image courtesy Pinwheel

I thought we had about three years before we would have to deal with phones for our twin 12-year-old sons. In my head I’d said age 15. Eighth grade graduation gift. A smart phone — but not too smart. 

Then middle school happened. And with that, my husband, John, and I found ourselves in more situations wishing we had a way to contact the boys. The final straw was booking a week of space camp for one boy, in Alabama. My mom brain just couldn’t wrap itself around the idea of a plane — a week, and a lot… of strangers — without a way for him to easily reach us if needed, however unlikely the worst case scenarios looping through my head were.

So we began the search. Many of the “kid” options were just too childish I felt to take my sons through middle school: Silly icons, bright colors, chunky wrist bands, etc. Not cool enough, I thought, to get us past the first blush of cell phone ownership.

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Then I remembered Pinwheel, a company I discovered through my work here at the magazine years ago, before my boys were ready for phones.  Pinwheel is the brainchild of two dads who wanted to teach their kids how to use technology safely, responsibly, and without taking over their lives. The company consults with child psychologists and parents to create a product that gives your child the “smart” phone they desire, with guard rails to keep them safe. 

Long story only slightly shorter: I found our phone.

What I love about Pinwheel

  • Parental controls. Parents can choose contacts and apps, set time limits for phone use (including when and how long), and monitor text messages — even deleted texts! (The phone also has a camera, but its usage can’t be controlled. However, you can control the ability to share photos.) You can access the Caregiver Portal online or via the Pinwheel app.
  • I never have to say, “Put your phone away.” Pinwheel offers modes, determining when and what your child can access on their phone throughout the day. Parents can determine which apps are available during which windows of time, as well as specify which contacts are available during those windows of time. For example, on school days from 8 am to 2:45 pm, my son can’t call or text anyone other than those I’ve deemed “emergency contacts.” He also can’t access any of his apps. From 2:45 pm to 6 pm, he has  full access to his phone.  At 6 p.m. the phone is locked down again and it’s family time. 
  • It’s not babyish. It’s a Samsung phone, so it’s a real smartphone, giving him tween cred. For appearances sake, anyway. 
  • It’s easy to set up, even for the tech-challenged parent. The modes took me a few minutes to figure out, but I had my tween there to walk me through it. 
  • Pinwheel does the research for me. No social media, browser or time-wasting game apps are available on Pinwheel. Pinwheel has a curated list of more than 350 apps to choose from, and they welcome suggestions from parents for apps to consider. The apps go through a rigorous process before being added to the menu of options. Some parents might be annoyed about this (kids, more so), but I’m fine with it. Happy, even. My sons have laptops at home and Amazon Fires; they have more than enough access to video games. 
  • Pinwheel is compatible with all cell phone service providers. Ours is T-Mobile and it was no problem setting up service.
  • Pinwheel matures with your child. The Caregiver Portal gives me the flexibility to determine what features/apps my son is ready for — it’s not a static phone, and I’m the gatekeeper. This also offers us opportunities to discuss  apps with our children.

How to Sign Up

To get started with Pinwheel, you have to purchase their phone and a service agreement for the Caregiver Portal set up and ongoing access. The monthly commitment is $15/month for the first phone and $5/month for each additional phone, and the phones themselves range in price from $199 to $329. They also sell cases and screen protectors.

Life with Pinwheel

I only have two wishes: I wish that we could download the Pinwheel software to an existing phone, and I would love to see a smart watch option. One of my sons would lose his head if it wasn’t attached, and he really prefers a smart watch for this reason. (The Pinwheel phone has GPS, and as long as it’s charged, we can find it via the Caregiver Portal.) 

Technology and kids can be a minefield on many levels because everyone has their opinions and preferences. We’ve only had our Pinwheel for a few weeks, but so far, it’s fitting our family’s needs perfectly. I recently asked my son what he likes best about his Pinwheel phone, and he replied, “I can text and email my friends, listen to music, take photos and use Duolingo.” Works for me!

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If you’re considering a phone for your child, take a look at Pinwheel. It might be a good fit for your family, too.

Although this article reflects the author’s opinions, Pinwheel supplied a complimentary phone to try. Pinwheel would like to offer a 10% discount on the initial cost of purchasing a Pinwheel phone to our readers. Just use the code PDXParent. We receive no financial compensation if you use the code.

Jill Weisensee
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