“Chris, what’s the best phone for kids?”
(Updated October 25, 2023, with updated pricing)
We receive this question all the time!
And now that there are multiple kid phone options, parents are hungry for guidance.
When Lauren was going through the tween years (now just graduated high school!), the options were a flip phone, a dorky-big tech watch, an iPhone, or an Android! Basically, all or nothing.
In the United States*, the most popular “first phones” for kids are:
- Gabb Wireless
- The Bark Phone
*Cell coverage is tricky in each country. This post focuses on the USA. But, one of these devices does work in Canada! Keep reading! (Oh, and in other countries, we are going to start compiling a list – right now, start with “best kid phones UK” or “AUS” in your search)
Bottom line – Gabb, Pinwheel, Troomi, and Bark are great, mission-minded organizations that want to protect kids online. We love this.
Any of the four is an amazing and safer option than an iPhone or Android during the critical “training” years.
But there are differences.
Our testing dug into each phone, testing their backdoors, and listing out pros and cons. We love providing deep research, and poking around like a tech-savvy tween. Also allowing my children to use them!
Full disclosure – clicking on the links in the post earns us a little money as affiliates and often gives you a special deal! It’s a win-win.
- Gabb affiliate link (or use PYE for $25 off)
- Pinwheel affiliate link (or use PYE10 for 10% off)
- Troomi affiliate link (or use PYE for $50 off)
- Bark affiliate link (just $49/month for phone + Bark software)
Tech in Steps #delayistheway
Give kids the right tech at the right time.
This simple sentence shapes much of what we teach at Protect Young Eyes. It’s the foundation for our hashtag campaign: #delayistheway – slow tech, not no tech.
Back in 2015, we were a lonely voice telling parents “No smartphones or social media until at least age 15!” But that doesn’t mean we remove ALL tech from their lives. We have followers from all over the tech spectrum, ranging from “no” to “go” to “slow.” We prefer the “slow tech” approach.
This is particularly true with it comes to PORTABLE digital devices. We’re firm believers that the elementary and junior high years simply don’t need smartphones.
Their hearts and minds aren’t ready for the pressures, targeted marketing and porn lurking in mini-supercomputers (aka iPhones).
We’ve gone as far as saying:
“No middle school child will become a better version of themselves – emotionally, spiritually, relationally – because of the presence of social media in their life.”
This is why I’m so pleased that parents now have multiple, great kid-phone options. Options that give parents peace of mind and allow children to be prepared, balanced, and protected.
What does Tech in Steps Look Like?
Just the hardware side of “tech in steps” could look like this, with a kid phone right in the middle:
- Start with a Family tablet, used by kids (that’s the important ownership piece).
- Maybe an Echo Kids in their room accompanied by a Gabb Watch.
- Gabb, Pinwheel, Troomi, or Bark Phone.
- iPhone with Family Sharing and Screen Time. Android with Family Link.
- Turn age 18 – we’ve trained you! You’ve got this!
In other words, a kid-friendly phone is a critical step in training a child how to handle sophisticated technology.
What do Gabb, Pinwheel, Troomi, and Bark Have in Common?
All four of these kid-friendly phones:
- Have a strong mission.
- Are designed for kids. Yeah!
- Look like a smartphone.
- Use GPS tracking.
Two phones eliminate all internet browsing (Gabb, Pinwheel). Three eliminate social media (Gabb, Pinwheel, Troomi). Only the Bark phone allows full access to whatever internet browsing and social media you allow but with its premium AI software woven throughout. It’s now a wonderful “step” between the minimalism of Gabb and the supercomputer-like iPhone. Finally, parents have options!
What are the Differences between Gabb, Pinwheel, Troomi, and Bark?
1. Kid Phone Prices for Devices & Service
As of October 25, 2023
- Gabb Phone: $149.99 + Cellular Plan (see below)
- Gabb Phone Plus: Currently Sold Out (As of 10/25/2023)
- Gabb Watch 3: $149.99 + Cellular Plan (see below)
- Starter Plan – 2 Year Contract is $24.99/mo, 1 Year Contract is $26.99/mo, and No Contract is $29.99/mo.
- Standard Plan – 2 Year Contract is $29.99/mo, 1 Year Contract is $31.99/mo, and No Contract is $34.99/mo.
- Advanced Plan – 2 Year Contract is $34.99/mo, 1 Year Contract is $36.99/mo, and No Contract is $39.99/mo.
Gabb Phone Plus: Currently Sold Out (as of 10/25/2023)
Gabb Watch 3: $14.99/mo.
- $12.99/mo with a 2 Year Contract, $14.99/mo with a 1 Year Contract, $17.99/mo with No Contract.
Accessories include fun bands, speakers, screen protectors, earbuds, and more.
Pinwheel Devices: they have three levels, and you can sometimes buy new or pre-owned.
- “Pixel” – $599 (only new), Android 6.1″ Full HD OLED display, fully compatible with all carriers and 5G.
- “Plus” – $329 (new), $259 (pre-owned), Android, 6.6″ display, fully compatible with all carriers and 5G.
- “Slim” – $199 (new), $129 (pre-owned), Android BLU G91s, 6.8″ display, not compatible with Verizon or 5G.
- “Rugged” – $249 (only new), Android, 5.7″ display, not compatible with AT&T, Verizon, or 5G.
Pinwheel Plans: this is different than the others, in that you’re actually just paying for the Pinwheel parent portal. You will have to add a carrier, e.g., AT&T data plan on top of the amount below:
- $14.99/mo. plus, whatever plan you want to add from your own wireless carrier.
- Or $13.75/mo with their annual billing (total of $164.99/year).
- $199 for the Samsung A14 5G.
- $399 for the Samsung Xcover Pro (drop proof, water resistant)
- “Do” plan: $19.95/mo.
- “Dream” plan: $24.95/mo. (adds unlimited picture texting)
- “Discover” plan: $29.95/mo. (adds KidSmart™ Safe Browser and Safe Apps)
Bark Device: Samsung Galaxy A13 (32GB), and the device comes with the service!
- $199 with No Contract, or $0 with a 2 Year Contract.
Bark Plan – note that all come with Bark’s premium AI software:
- $49/month for Wi-Fi only
- $59/month for 4GB data
- $69/month for 8GB data
- $89/month unlimited data
Bark has both the simplest pricing and it’s the most expensive. But you’re paying for things that the other phones simply can’t do like monitor web browsing and social media, which you’ll read more about below!
**Hey, check this out!
We created a pricing spreadsheet that automatically calculates the lifetime cost of the devices above! Just download the spreadsheet to your computer (I have it uploaded as “read-only” so that everyone can access it) and then insert the number of years you plan to use the device. If you plan to use Pinwheel, you’ll also insert the carrier plan cost. I just love a good spreadsheet!Download Kid Phone Cost Spreadsheet
2. Only Gabb has an Awesome Smartwatch!
The Gabb Watch is a strong elementary and early junior high device that looks and functions great. The steps counter is fun, and Gabb offers playful accessories.
For families following a “stepped” approach to technology, Gabb has a clear advantage with a watch that provides an awesome on-ramp to portable tech. My 12-year-old son Cole uses the first-generation Gabb Watch (soon graduating to a Gabb Phone Plus) and I love it.
3. Carrier Differences
Gabb, Troomi, and Bark use the Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile networks, respectively, for coverage. You don’t pay anything to these carriers – each kid phone company has simply “tapped” into the network so you pay Gabb, Troomi, and Bark (for example, here’s Bark’s coverage map, which is the same as T-Mobile’s).
Pinwheel is different. Remember – you’re essentially paying for Pinwheel’s operating system/parent portal to use on a compatible Android phone, which could use any carrier (they recommend Mint Mobile).
Why might this matter? Maybe you simply want all your mobile phones on the same “plan” for simplicity – mom, dad, tween. In either scenario, you would only be able to use Pinwheel. Or, maybe you only have great coverage with Verizon, but you want more features than Gabb. Then, you might select Pinwheel so that you can use a compatible Android phone on Verizon’s network.
4. Managing Contacts on Kid Phones
During the training phase, it’s important for parents to know who their kids are communicating with.
Gabb takes a different approach to contact management than the other three. Instead of using an allowed contact list, Gabb uses Gabb Guard, its proprietary text and call filtration service.
“Gabb Guard stops over 90% of potentially harmful content from being texted to your child from unknown numbers, including URL links, image and video attachments, profanities, dirty slang, and solicitation messages.”
Even with this feature, a popular parent forum and a few PYE followers have struggled with spam texts and calls making their way through. We’ve been assured by Gabb leadership that this issue has been fixed and recently we have noticed far fewer comments about this issue.
Pinwheel, Troomi, and Bark use an “allowed contacts” approach. This just means kids can only text and call individuals on the contacts list. Interestingly, the Gabb Watch also uses an “allowed contacts” list, which we would love to see used on their phone.
Pinwheel and Bark allow three different phases for contact control (we love these):
- Strict – parents control all contacts on the phone via the Caregiver Portal.
- Less strict – kids can add contacts and request parent approval, which parents clear in the Pinwheel Caregiver Portal.
- Least strict – kids add any content but parents can see them anytime in the Caregiver Portal.
- Strict – parents control all contacts on the phone via their Parent Portal.
- Less strict – kids can add contacts and request parent approval, which parents clear in the Parent Portal.
Bark also allows certain contacts to be tagged as “Emergency,” which allows them to be communicated with anytime.
Based on conversations with our parents, they prefer what Pinwheel, Troomi, and Bark are doing here. Gabb made this choice to be more “kid first,” but parents seem to want control while training their kids.
5. Monitoring Text Messages
There are key differences here.
On the Gabb Phone Plus, the texting application is their own. Parents can’t see text messages without looking at the phone, but children can’t delete messages. Gabb also depends on their Gabb Guard to keep texting “clean” and safe. What Gabb lacks right now is the ability for parents to view a child’s text messages remotely from the parent portal. Gabb has told us they’re considering a change here (May 26, 2023 update – Gabb has a beta testing group in process with Gabb Messenger, a proprietary texting app).
Pinwheel and Troomi both handle texts similarly – they use the Android SMS texting app, and their parent portal allows remote visibility into all text messages. Even deleted texts!
Bark takes a bit of a hybrid approach between both of those due to the advantage of its premium AI software:
- Kids can’t delete texts without permission.
- Parents rely on Bark’s software to detect inappropriate images + words and only get involved if needed. Here’s what that might look like on the Parent Dashboard:
It’s strong. And for some parents, this approach might strike the right balance between “trust” and “verify.”
FYI – Pinwheel is also compatible with Bark’s premium AI software, which monitors texting for concerning activity. But you would have to add that to a Pinwheel phone for another $14/month. You can check out Bark’s software here, which also works on iPhones and standard Android smartphones and tablets if you have those in your home:
A quick note about GROUP TEXTS – we’ve received quite a few messages from parents who were frustrated by how these devices manage text groups. Because contacts are often limited to who has been added as an “allowed contact,” any of the phones above might struggle with group texts. But this is by design. Just ensure that the kids your child is communicating with are included in his/her contacts!
6. What Apps are Available on Kid Phones?
Some key differences in the Apps and Internet sections.
- Gabb has historically only had its own, proprietary apps. These include 15 apps like a radio, camera, and calculator. This historically guaranteed zero possibility of internet backdoors. The Gabb Phone Plus now includes a few third-party apps for spirituality, weather, education, and maps.
- Pinwheel has a large, curated app list (300+), that has been vetted by parents and therapists. Some have backdoors to the internet, which Pinwheel notes in their “app store.” Useful apps allowed by Pinwheel include Google Drive, Docs, and even banking. Pinwheel’s website has a detailed and honest description of the apps it allows, noting which apps have potential backdoors or features that could expose children to mature content. It’s impressive.
- Troomi has a smaller (50+) set of approved apps that are also useful for kids. But the descriptions are lacking. For example – parents wouldn’t know that Spotify and Amazon Music allow access to explicit audio content in their podcasts.
- Bark allows access to the entire Google Play Store, and therefore has the largest selection! The Parent Dashboard in the Bark App allows parents to allow or disallow apps that a child wants to download.
“Backdoors to the Internet” – this is important. For Pinwheel, they are very forthright with where backdoors in apps exist. And if they are accessed, according to a direct response from their leadership, “Pinwheel has a global ‘blocked sites’ list that includes many common adult websites.” In other words, even if a child found a backdoor to the internet, many porn sites aren’t accessible – awesome.
For Troomi, when backdoors are discovered, they are supposed to be blocked, but we couldn’t test all of them.
For Bark, their software is woven throughout the phone.
7. What Kid Phones have Access to the Internet?
With Gabb it’s simple – there’s no internet browser. We’ve been told that the few third-party apps added to the Gabb Phone Plus have been closely evaluated for backdoor internet access.
Pinwheel doesn’t have a browser, but has some internet backdoors, which we just explained in the Apps section, and clearly called out in the Parent Portal.
Troomi has two browser options – an unfiltered Chrome browser or their “allow list only” KidSafe™ browser. This means you can only visit websites that are put on the allowed list.
Since the Bark Phone has access to the entire Google Play Store, parents can allow or disallow any browser they want. And any browser that’s allowed will be monitored by Bark’s software on the phone.
One concern – I want to make sure parents understand that the Troomi KidSafe™ browser isn’t a filtered browser. The name “Kid Safe” may imply a bit more than what it does. It’s a browser for whatever websites are added to the Parent Portal. This means any website can be added and accessed on the phone, including explicit sites.
**Pro tip (password vaults) – for all kid phones with a parent dashboard, like Pinwheel, Troomi, or even Bark (the software), parents will want to make sure they DO NOT add the username and password for the parent portals to their password managers (sometimes called password vaults). Example – LastPass or One Password. The risk is that a sneaky kid could use that computer, log in with the parent password (which auto-populates), add mature websites to his Troomi KidSafe™ browser, and watch them on his Troomi phone.
8. What about Clean Music?
Both Troomi and Pinwheel allow Spotify, Spotify Kids, Apple Music, and Amazon Music, which have some vulnerabilities. Pinwheel is forthcoming about the mature features present in a few of these streaming music apps. These exposures aren’t included in the Troomi app descriptions, so parents need to be aware (here’s our Streaming Music parental control review).
Bark allows access to all streaming music services and it’s just up to parents to decide which ones they want to allow. Note that Bark’s software does monitor for explicit content on Spotify, which is great.
Gabb solved the music problem by creating their own, proprietary service called Gabb Music. It uses AI and hand-selected tracks for an up-charge of $4.99/month. The upcoming Gabb Music Plus will be a true Spotify Premium experience for $9.99/month.
All four allow kids to use Bluetooth headphones.
9. Which Kid Phone has the Best Camera?
- Gabb Phone and Plus: 5MB front (selfie), 8MP rear.
- Pinwheel Slim: 13MP front, 48MP rear; Plus: 13MP front, 50MP rear; Rugged: 8MP front, 13MP rear
- Troomi A14: 13MP front, 50MP rear; Xcover Pro: 13MPfront, 25MP rear
- Bark: 8MP front, 50MP rear
Pinwheel and Troomi have the strongest selfie (front camera). Pinwheel, Troomi, and Bark all have super great rear cameras. Gabb lags in camera quality in both.
10. Screen Time Limits (Who has the Best Parent Portal?)
The original Gabb Phone has no screen time limits. With only 15 custom apps, they didn’t think limits were needed. This means there isn’t a portal for managing many of the phone’s features. We suspect this might change as features are added to the Gabb Phone Plus.
Pinwheel’s parent portal is user-friendly and customizable. Limits can be set for school time, homework, and bedtime, including individual app access. There’s even a fun “chore” mode where kids can earn phone time. It’s really extensive.
Troomi’s portal and screen time user experience is similar to Pinwheel.
Bark’s app-based parent portal is probably the easiest to use since it leverages what Bark has learned from having a parent portal for their software since 2015.
11. Which Device has the Best Customer Service?
All four companies depend on self-help online, email, and live online chat.
- Pinwheel also has phone support from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. CST, call or Text: (888) 903-7977.
- Troomi also has phone support Monday – Friday (8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. CT) at (866) 545-4222.
- As of the writing of this post, Gabb depends on live chat support. Gabb: Monday-Thursday 7 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. MST; Friday/Saturday 7 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. MST.
- Bark has chat that directs you to leave an email address for someone to reach out, which they did in about 30 minutes. I was then offered email support or I could schedule a phone call. Email support is 8am-2am EST. Phone calls are scheduled through a Calend.ly link and are robust, including full device or software set-up, screen time questions, etc.
Do any of These Phones Work in Canada?
Important note for our Canadian friends – The Team at The White Hatter was successful with using a Pinwheel phone in Vancouver!
“…we used a SIM card ($10 + tax) from a Canadian company called Public Mobile that piggybacks on the Telus cellular network ($15 a month + tax).”
Bottom Line: What Kid-Friendly Phone is Right for You?
Gabb makes the claim that it’s the safest phone for kids. Without a browser or internet access and backdoors, it’s tough to argue with this claim. It’s just a dead-simple device. We also love the Gabb Watch as a training device.
Why? Because for families that want a device with more options, we think the Bark Phone provides the best balance between “prepare” and “protect,” which are two, very important words for us. It’s a strong device to introduce after a starter device, like the Gabb Watch. It has options + full insight into what’s happening because of the strength of the Parent Portal and Bark’s Premium AI software.
From a technical perspective, the Bark Phone also proved to be a little less “buggy” than Pinwheel or Troomi. The Bark monitoring software just seems to fit a little better into the operating system, based on our testing.Visit Bark's Website Visit Gabb's Website
This is why we tend to recommend either Gabb or Bark, depending on whether you want a locked-down device or one with options!
Like I said at the beginning – all four companies are in this for families, doing great things:
- Gabb affiliate link (or use PYE for $25 off)
- Pinwheel affiliate link (or use PYE10 for 10% off)
- Troomi affiliate link (or use PYE for $50 off)
- Bark affiliate link (just $49/month for phone + Bark software)
We love spreadsheets, so here’s the grid! Which device are you using? Comment with your experience below.
*There might be affiliate links throughout this post because we’ve tested the heck out of these resources 🙂 We hope the information is helpful. If you decide to purchase something, we may earn a small commission and you often get a better price. Woot!
Chris McKenna, Founder: A man with never ending energy when it comes to fighting for the safety and protection of children. Chris practices his internet safety tips on his four amazing children and is regularly featured on news, radio, and podcasts for his research. His 2019 US Senate Judiciary Committee testimony was the catalyst for draft legislation and on-going discussion that could radically change online child protection laws and earned PYE the NCOSE Dignity Defense Alert Award in 2020. The PYE team has performed over 1,300 presentations at schools, churches, and nonprofits and was featured in the Childhood 2.0 movie. When not leading PYE, Chris is the Digital Marketing Manager for Covenant Eyes. Other loves include running, spreadsheets, nature, and candy.