The Ultimate Comparison of the Best Smartphones for Kids in 2023: Pinwheel, Gabb, Troomi, and Bark
Choosing the best smartphone for your tween or teen can be a nerve-wracking experience. You’ve heard the stories about the dangers of social media and pornography. You know choosing a phone is an important step in teaching your child to have a healthy relationship with technology. Luckily, there are more options than ever as more companies create phones designed to keep kids safe. In this article, we’ll look at the phones available from Gabb, Pinwheel, Troomi, and Bark and help you decide which one is the best smartphone for your kid.
Best smartphones for kids carriers and costs
First, let’s start with the basics: carriers and costs.
*Use the links below to take advantage of the latest specials for each of these phones.
- Gabb Use code DYM for exclusive promos
- Pinwheel Use link for 10% off
- Troomi Use code DEFEND for $50 off
Most smartphones for kids run on a custom wireless network. Having their own network enables the company to tweak certain features that increase the phone’s safety, like limiting internet access or screening texts. Gabb’s wireless service is built on the Verizon network; Bark Wireless is based on T-Mobile, and Troomi on AT&T. This could be a problem if you live in an area that isn’t well covered by these networks or you want the convenience of having your child’s service bundled with your family plan. Pinwheel has the only phones designed for kids that can work with service from almost any carrier, depending on compatibility.
Service costs for a kid-safe phone tend to be higher than typical phone service because you are paying for their advanced filtering and monitoring capabilities. Gabb and Troomi both have tiered plans in the $20-30 range, depending on the features you want. Pinwheel service may look cheaper at $15, but only because phone service isn’t included. Adding a $10/month plan brings it right in line with Gabb and Troomi. Pinwheel and Gabb offer a slight discount for more lines, which could be useful if you have multiple kids needing a phone.
The higher cost is Bark. Their plans start at $49/month with no data service and go up to $89/month with unlimited data. The reason for the higher price is two-fold. First, Bark won’t let you pay for the phone up front, so you’re essentially committed to a device payment plan with the option to upgrade after 30 months. The plan price also includes a subscription to Bark Premium, which can be used for an unlimited number of devices and children in your household. Bark Premium provides some of the best monitoring software available (more on that below), but only you can decide if the cost is worth it. We’ll note that Bark Premium monitoring can also be added to Pinwheel phones at Bark’s regular $15/month price, but it will have fewer features without Bark’s custom hardware and software.
Speaking of hardware, let’s talk about the phones themselves. All the carriers have an entry-level device in the $150-200 range, which helps reduce the pain if your child is likely to drop or lose their phone while they’re learning to be responsible. (Make sure you check on the device warranty if this is a concern; Gabb and Bark include a one-year full warranty.) Troomi also provides the option to upgrade to a mid-tier Samsung phone in the $400 range, great for older teens who want a better camera and higher performance. Pinwheel has the most phone options with four different models including refurbished phones as well as a Pixel phone at $499. All of the phones have decent cameras, though Gabb’s will be noticeably worse than the rest: their rear-camera is 5-megapixels compared to the 50-megapixels on most of the other options. If you have a budding photographer, you may also need to get a phone with expandable memory, which is only available on Pinwheel or Troomi.
And now on to the main attraction: the parental controls! You want to choose the best smartphone designed for kids and teens with the built-in tools to keep your child safe from pornography, sexual predators, and the other dangers of the internet. Each of these phones has great features that help your child use technology responsibly, but with a slightly different philosophy. Let’s take a careful look at the parental control features of each phone to help you decide which one is right for your family.
Gabb Phone & Gabb Phone Plus
Gabb’s philosophy is that less is more. Even though they’ve added a few more apps since their early days, the Gabb Phone is still essentially flip-phone-like features in a smartphone-shaped box. (Gabb also offers the Gabb Watch 2 for even fewer distractions.) There’s no internet and only 15 essential apps to install. The original Gabb Phone has the ability to disable picture and group texts if that’s something you need. (Pinwheel also has this feature.) Both the Gabb Phone and the Gabb Phone Plus can use Gabb Music, the proprietary music streaming service that’s been human-screened to be appropriate for kids in language and themes.
One major omission from Gabb’s features is that there’s no contact whitelist so anyone can contact your child if they have their phone number. Because of this, Gabb Phones could sometimes be plagued with spam calls and texts, though a recent upgrade to their spam protection claims to have fixed the problem. You also won’t be able to view your child’s texts or call log except by inspecting the device itself, as Gabb doesn’t include any monitoring capabilities. The advantage to the Gabb phone is that you’ll have fewer tech battles with your kids because there just isn't that much to argue about. It’s a phone with texting, a calendar, alarms, and GPS, and that’s about it. Gabb’s goal is to get your child off their screen and out doing things without you worrying.
Troomi & Pinwheel
Troomi and Pinwheel both focus on creating a customized phone experience that’s designed to grow with your child. Parents can create multiple profiles for different times of day (school, free time, homework time, bedtime) and restrict what phone features and apps are available during each. Pinwheel’s system for creating this schedule is a little more customizable, allowing you to create checklists for your child’s routines and make more custom times. Troomi’s interface is more streamlined but sacrifices some of the customization you can get with Pinwheel.
Both phones have a custom screened app library, preventing your child from wading through all the spammy or dangerous apps in the app store. Neither phone includes social media apps and they also have very few games or entertainment apps. Pinwheel’s apps are curated to be tools not toys, so there aren’t addictive gaming apps either. Before buying, we suggest that you browse their app library to make sure the apps you want are available. We like Pinwheel’s app library a little more as they have a rating system that notes potential app dangers for parents. For example, both Troomi and Pinwheel have Spotify available, but Pinwheel includes a note next to it about potential problems: “Mature content. Anonymous communication allowed. Consumption and addictive design.” As a parent, you still get to decide whether the app is right for your child, but Pinwheel does some of the research for you.
One difference is that Troomi does have an internet browser that you can choose to enable, whereas Pinwheel keeps browsers off your child’s phone. The Troomi browser can be limited to a white-list so your child can only visit websites you specify, or it can run in a kid-safe mode with Troomi’s filtering system. This could be useful for older teens that may need internet access for homework.
In terms of monitoring, both Troomi and Pinwheel let you view all of your child’s texts in the parent portal, so there’s no need to scroll your kid’s phone to keep an eye on them. Pinwheel has a slight advantage over Troomi because you can install Bark monitoring which helps alert you to concerning texts, emails, and searches without the need to look through all of your child’s conversations. Both phones also work off a contact white-list so you can control who your child can talk to at any time.
The Bark Phone has a unique approach from either the minimalist Gabb Phone or the structured approach of Troomi and Pinwheel. Bark’s philosophy is to give kids and teens some privacy. (Disclaimer: At DYM, we don't advocate for carte blanche privacy when it comes to tech access for kids. We believe it's safer for kids to expect privacy when they become adults.) So Bark does not provide parent access to all of your child’s texts and emails. Instead, Bark uses computer algorithms to alert you when it detects a possible issue so you can review just that message. Sometimes you get false positives--Bark did not like it when my son was working on a report on tanks in WWII. But generally, Bark is good at alerting you to possible bullying or sexual content. They also have a wider range of monitoring as they can monitor things like song lyrics and Google Docs which the other services can’t. Unlike the website-based controls of Pinwheel and Troomi, these concerns pop up as notifications on your phone so you can deal with them immediately, similar to the parental controls on Google Family Link. It’s a different approach that works better for some families but might not provide enough control for others.
Another thing that’s different about Bark is that your child can have access to any app available in the Google Play store with parental approval. This allows maximum flexibility for the unique apps your child might need, but also means you’re on your own to determine what apps are safe or not. Another potential drawback in this system is that your child needs a non-supervised Google account to get this to work. On their phone, Bark handles all the parental controls that would normally be covered by Google. But your child could use this account on other devices to gain unfiltered internet access, so you’ll need to be careful to control access. Bark also has the unique feature of being able to set alarms on your child’s device remotely, so you can help them remember things from a distance.
Remember the internal filter
Overall, we’re glad to see so many companies working to create phones designed around families. It’s a better world from when your only options were the iPhone or a flip phone. The availability of different options means that you should be able to find the best smartphone that also gives your child the tools they need. No matter which phone you choose, remember that no filtering system is completely foolproof. Make sure you talk about online dangers with your kids before handing them a device, and equip them with an internal filter. Our Brain Defense curriculum provides a great place to start the conversation.
Brain Defense: Digital Safety Curriculum - Family Edition
"Parents are desperate for concepts and language like this to help their children. They would benefit so much from this program - and I think it would spur much needed conversations between parents and children.” --Jenet Erikson, parent