A better smartwatch for kids

Ola Thoresen
6 min readDec 21, 2023

I’ve been in a few feisty discussions with both other parents and vendors of so called “smart watches” or “gps wathes” for kids. My main issue with most of them is that the security is pretty bad, and also that for me, trust is one of the most important parts of a relationship between a child and their parents.

I don’t believe in a relationship where I as a parent — at any time I want — can invade my kids personal space, and track them without their consent.

But on the other hand, I do want a device that lets my kid communicate on his own terms. And a device that might give him a feel of safety because he can reach us when he feels for it. But also a device that will allow us to reach him, but without all the privacy conserns and personal space invading that the current kids-devices out there are open to.

At the same time, it should be a device that the kids would want to use. Not a collar to keep them on a leash, but something they find as a useful and cool thing.

So I started this post to try to summarise and organise my thoughts on how such a device should work in my view.

Physically, it should probably be a watch. The main reason is that a watch is easy to wear, and slightly harder to lose than a device you carry in your pocket. It should also be water proof, and of course sized so it fits a kid, not an adult. But it would also need a nicely sized screen so it can be used as a camera and to show photos, and also be usable for kids fingers. More on the different apps below.

It should of course have a GPS, 4G/LTE/5G (wifi is not that important, but I guess it does not add much cost on todays chips. It might have some influence on battery usage), and regular “phone” functions to make calls and receive SMSes. But the important thing is that I as a parent can not track the device or force it to send me position data. But the device can of course be used to send that info if the child wants it to.

The watch is managed from a “parent” app on either a phone, tablet or computer. But the watch should NOT be managed through a cloud service. Software updates should also be done through the “parent” app.

Apps

Certain apps should be controlled by policies, and the policies should be easy to see and check on the watch, so that e.g. teachers etc. can — with a simple look at the watch — see that the camera is disabled at school etc.

Calendar

Can subscribe to standard remote calendars (e.g. caldav, google calendars etc) defined by the parent app. Will also alert by e.g. vibration for upcoming events as set in the calendar entries notification field.

Camera

Simple camera app that can take photos and share them with people in the contact list. The camera should be geo-fenced and/or time regulated (so you can create rules like “No camera at school on a weekday between 0700 and 1600”).

Clock

Displays time. Also has all the “usual suspects”, timer, stop watch, alarm clock etc. that can be used directly on the watch.

Contacts

Synced from the parent app. Used as the basis for sending different kinds of messages and calling. Contacs can only be added from the parent app. Either photos of the contact or other icons can be used to identify the different contacts in all other apps.

There could be an option that the watch can be used to suggest contacts, so that friends etc. can be added directly to the watch, but needs to be approved by the parent app.

The same could happen if e.g. a VCARD is received as a message or a QR-code with contact data is scanned by the watch.

Dialling

Can only call numbers from the contact list. No dial pad.
Can receive calls from numbers in the contact list. All other calls are blocked. A notification should be added to the parent app if an unknown call is received, with the option to add the number as a contact or permanently block it (without further notifications if the same number calls again).

The dialler app should also have an option to be completely disabled at certian places and time periods like the camera app.

Emergency

With a simple gesture (e.g. “tap the screen at least 10 times in 5 seconds” or similar) a message is sent to a predefined group in the contact list containg an emergency message and location. Also, location tracking is turned on, and the watch will send updated locations to the group until the emergency mode is disabled from the parent app. Emergency mode can not be disabled from the device itself, and requires some kind of proximity (e.g. an encrypted bluetooth connection or something similar) between a parent device and the child device to be deactivated.
This is the only situation where continous tracking is enabled.

Gallery

Simple image-viewer that allows you to scroll through captured images and delete images or send them to one or more of your contacts. Possibly an option to upload images to services like Google Drive, iCloud, OneDrive or a private Webdav service etc. configured by the parent app.

Maps

Optional, but “nice to have”. At least some kind of geolocation that can resolve GPS coordinates to addresses (to be sent in messages, see below), and maybe a simple “navigate home” and “estimated time of arrival”.

The parent app could also send other locations to the watch, and locations in calendar events could show up, to allow for easier navigation to other places as well.

Messages

Can receive regular text messages (SMS) from senders in the contact list.
From a pre defined group, some messages (number 1–9 or something) will display an icon or an image on the watch (1 = “Come home”, 2 = “Call us” etc. with an easy to understand image or icon for the youngest kids).

Can send predefined messages to numbers in the contact list.
The predefined messages can be created using the parent app. Some variables should be usable, such as “{location}”, so messages can contain some dynamic content. Messages should be associated with an easy to use icon, so the kid can navigate the pre defined messages easily.

For older kids, regular messages can be sent and received, but still only to contacts in the contact list. Again it should be an easy way to add dynamic info such as the address you are at to a message.

The message app should also have an option to be completely disabled at certian places and time periods like the camera and dialling app.

Music

Apps like Spotify, iTunes, Tidal etc can be enabled. Accounts added from the parent app. They should be able to cast to e.g. Google- or Apple speakers and connect to regular bluetooth speakers/headphones etc.

Notebook

Even though writing on such a small device is not very userfriendly, a notebook/diary is nice to have.

Notes on the watch should not be visible in the parent app. They are private to the watch user.

Voice messages

As an alterntive to sending text messages, voice messages could be an easier way to communicate. Push button, talk, select contact (or group) from the contact list, send.

The voice message app should also have an option to be completely disabled at certian places and time periods like the messages app.

These are examples of how I believe the apps should behave and be controlled. There might be other apps that could be relevant, but hopefully this clarifies the idea of what to expect from the apps and how different apps can balance between letting the parents and guardians keep some control, while still giving the child freedom and privacy.

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Ola Thoresen

Noe over gjennomsnittlig interessert. Kjentmann i IP- og nettverksjungelen, og jobber i nLogic AS.