The most interesting Apple Watch product Apple announced this year wasn’t the new flagship Series 6 or the new lower-cost Watch SE. It wasn’t watchOS 7 with its handful of new watchfaces, the ability to track your sleep, or detect when you’re washing your hands to reprimand you if you don’t go the full 20 seconds either.
The most interesting thing is Apple’s new Family Setup service, which lets parents provision an Apple Watch for their kids to use. They can choose what apps and services their kids can access, who they can call or send messages to, and track their location through GPS. Even if you’re not a parent, the new Family Setup service is interesting because it gives us an idea of what a truly standalone Apple Watch could be.
For the past few weeks, I’ve strapped an Apple Watch SE to my eight-year-old child to see what the new Family Setup service is like to use in the real world (or at least as real of an experience as I can get in the middle of pandemic lockdown). Here’s what I’ve learned.
The easiest way to think of Family Setup is it’s Apple’s take on the GPS tracking smartwatches for kids that have been sold by carriers for the past few years. Parents like those devices for their ability to see where their child’s location is at any given time and check in with them via text message or calls. Beyond that, the basic watches might track some simple fitness metrics and tell the time, but they are far from full-fledged smartwatches. Their designs are often chunky and kid-friendly, and their user interfaces are simplified down with big buttons and colorful graphics. The parental management apps for smartphones are similarly basic and not especially pleasant to use. There may also be data privacy concerns, as sometimes the companies that make these watches aren’t as secure or have worse data policies than Apple.
Family Setup is slightly different. Instead of being a dedicated device solely designed for kids, it is just a mode that you enable on a cellular-enabled Apple Watch. You need an iPhone to configure it, but beyond that, the Watch isn’t paired to any specific device, unlike the standard system that requires you to link an Apple Watch with an iPhone.
A Family Setup Apple Watch has a majority of the capabilities of the Apple Watch that you or I might purchase and use. It has all of the same watchfaces, including their deep levels of customization; comes with many of the same preinstalled apps; can use Apple’s services like iMessage, Music, Siri, and more; and can even install apps from the App Store that’s on the Watch itself.
That means when you are handing a Family Setup Apple Watch to your kid, you are handing them a full-fledged smartwatch with all of the capabilities and responsibilities associated with it. It is no more durable than any other Apple Watch, it needs to be charged every day, and it can be as open or as limited in capabilities as you decide. The interface is no different from watchOS 7, which means there’s still the fiddly constellation of app icons when you press the crown, tap elements are rather small, and there’s a lot of text to read. Depending on the age of your child, this interface can either be just fine or a challenge to use — at the very least, I recommend switching the app launcher to the list view for easier access.
It’s also just as expensive as any other Apple Watch. To use Family Setup, you need to have a Watch with cellular connectivity and then sign up for a service plan through your carrier, which runs about $10 per month. The Apple Watch SE with LTE is the lowest-cost new model that Apple sells that’s compatible, and it starts at $329. You can use Family Setup with something as old as a Series 4, but since the vast majority of people do not buy the cellular versions of the Apple Watch, it’s unlikely that you’ll have one to pass down to a kid or find a great deal on the secondhand market.
That cost is two to three times as much as what you can get a basic GPS tracking watch for, and it’s undeniably a lot of money to spend on a gadget that you’re going to strap to a kid’s wrist. As I learned when reviewing the Apple Watch SE, it doesn’t take much to break an Apple Watch, and fixing it isn’t cheap. You can add AppleCare to the Watch just like any other Apple device to provide some insurance against breakage, but that’s even more to spend up front.
The highlight feature for a lot of parents will likely be the GPS tracking capabilities, which neatly integrate into Apple’s existing Find My app. You can see where your child is, set up notifications for when they arrive or leave a specific location, and even get an alert if they aren’t at an expected location at a specific time.
Testing that feature has been challenging during the pandemic-related lockdown we’re currently in since my kid rarely leaves our home, and when they do, I’m generally with them. I was able to get an alert for when they arrived at school, and I can check the Find My app to confirm that they are indeed at school when they are supposed to be. But with no extracurriculars and no play dates at friends’ houses happening now, this feature has had limited utility.
The list of features that do work on the Apple Watch with Family Setup is far longer than what’s not supported, which includes Podcasts, Remote, Apple News, Home, and Shortcuts. Messages, phone calls, walkie talkie, watchfaces, timers, alarms, stopwatch, Reminders, Calendar, Breathe, Maps, weather, and Voice Memos are all fully functional in Family Setup. Your child can ask Siri for weather reports, to set timers, send messages, and perform most other tasks short of controlling smart home gadgets.
A unique Family Setup feature is the new Schooltime mode, which is an extreme downtime feature that effectively locks out every capability of the Watch outside of telling the time. When Schooltime is enabled, a special school bus-yellow watchface is displayed that only shows the time and date. Apple says this is designed to make it easy for teachers to see if the Watch is locked from a distance.
Parents can program what time Schooltime is enabled and disabled based on the school schedule of their child. Since Schooltime locks out everything, including the ability to send messages or receive notifications, the child can unlock it if they need to use the Watch for something. Each unlock is reported in the parent’s Apple Watch app.
The Apple Watch will also track your child’s fitness activity, though there are some limitations here. High and low heart rate notifications are limited to ages 13 and up, fall detection is only available for those over the age of 18, and irregular heart rhythm notifications, EKG, cycle tracking, sleep tracking, and blood oxygen sensing aren’t available at all under Family Setup. Those limitations make Family Setup less ideal for elder care uses, where you’d likely want to monitor for things like irregular heart rhythm or falls and have the ability to spot-check EKG readings.
If the Apple Watch wearer is under the age of 13, the Activity app will track the number of minutes they’ve moved as opposed to active calories, as it does for adults. This is designed to keep kids from focusing on calorie consumption, but I think it would be beneficial for everyone if Apple transitioned away from counting calorie burn full stop. Workout tracking is still available, so a child can track runs and other activities. My kid has particularly enjoyed measuring the distance of their bike rides using the cycling tracking feature and has unsurprisingly gotten attached to closing their rings by the end of the day, a feeling many Apple Watch wearers are familiar with.
Lastly, Family Setup on an Apple Watch also supports Apple Pay, so a wearer can purchase items using it where Apple Pay is accepted. Parents can set up an Apple Cash card on their phone and then link it to the child’s Watch. Funds can be added by sending a text message to the Watch, which the child taps to add to their card. Parents can also get notifications when money is spent or sent from the card, limit who a child can send money to, see a record of transactions in the Wallet app on their iPhone, and remotely lock the ability to use the Apple Cash card on the Watch.
Setting up Family Setup on an Apple Watch is not unlike setting up an Apple Watch for yourself. The main difference is that you need to create an Apple ID for your child during the process, which the Watch app on the iPhone walks you through. The setup also walks you through enabling approval for App Store purchases; setting up the necessary cellular connection and subscribing to a plan through your carrier; setting fitness tracking goals; turning on Messages; and more.
You are also prompted to set up which contacts will show up on the Watch and who your child will be allowed to communicate with using the Watch. This is an important step. When I initially set up the Watch for my child, I breezed through this without setting it up properly, and it took less than a day for spam texts and calls to start showing up on their Watch.
Since setting up a cellular connection requires attaching an actual phone number to the Watch, your child is open to whatever database that phone number has been in. Limiting who they can contact and, more importantly, who can contact them prevents spammers and randoms from sending them messages or calling the Watch. Messages from unapproved contacts that are sent to the Watch will still show up in the Messages app, though you aren’t able to read their contents. I wish Apple would just block them entirely so my kid doesn’t have to deal with periodically deleting them.
Beyond the initial setup, things get a bit wonkier from the parent’s side. Instead of doing everything through the Apple Watch app, as you might expect, some features in Family Setup are managed in the Watch app, others are managed in the Screen Time settings page, while others still are accessed through the Apple Health app. Tracking your child’s location and setting up location alerts is done via the Find My app, an entirely different app from the three already mentioned. It’s confusing and hard to remember what setting is where; a consolidated place for all of this would make it a lot easier.
The Screen Time settings are the most important. Once you’ve set up the Watch and added your child to your family, you will be able to access your child’s Screen Time page in the Screen Time section of the Settings app on your iPhone. From there, you can enable downtime schedules, turn on communication limits for both normal and downtime periods, manage which apps are allowed to be used on the Watch, and control the content and privacy features. This allows you to enable or disable App Store and iTunes purchases, limit explicit content, and further control who your child can interact with through features like Game Center. It’s quite comprehensive, though it does take a fair amount of time to go through all of the options and understand what they do and how they will impact the experience for your child.
During my testing, I ran into a bug where I was unable to turn on the content and privacy restrictions at all. The solution wasn’t obvious – I had to sign out of iCloud on my iPhone and sign back in, which resolved it.
The only feature that’s managed in the Apple Watch app on your iPhone is the Schooltime schedule, where you can program schedules for it and see a report of how many times your child bypassed the lock.
In the few weeks we’ve been testing Family Setup, my kid has mostly used the Memoji watchface and customized a bunch of Memoji of themselves and their siblings. They have liked using the cycling workout feature to see how long their bike rides are, asking Siri for weather reports when getting dressed in the morning, and sending messages to their parents or grandparents. They also like being able to close their Activity rings each day. Battery life has been right around Apple’s prediction of 14 hours: my kid wears the Watch from about 7:30AM to 7:30PM, and there’s typically 15–20 percent battery life when they take it off.
Beyond that, the limitations of Family Setup and the fact that the Watch is not paired to a specific phone have diminished its usefulness. It’s extremely difficult to get things like calendar events, which are very useful when managing remote schooling, syncing on the Watch, due to the fact that it’s not actually paired to a phone. The Schooltime lockout mode is so aggressive that I can’t send emergency messages to my child, nor can they see any reminders or calendar entries without bypassing the lock. The Schooltime lock even prevented me from getting a notification each time my child leaves school because it blocked the notification on the Watch that requires them to approve the recurring alert. (It’s a privacy feature. One-time location alerts do not need approval, but the Watch does inform the wearer each time an alert is sent to the parent’s phone.)
It’s clear that Apple designed the Schooltime for a normal school schedule, where a student goes to school from the morning to the mid-afternoon and shouldn’t really have a need for any smartwatch features. But in our current situation of hybrid remote and in-school learning, the Schooltime mode is too restrictive. Apple suggests customizing a special downtime mode that allows certain apps and notifications through instead, but that’s another level of work and management for the parent.
The other features also feel designed for a different time. As mentioned, my kid isn’t exactly traveling to multiple places much right now, so the need to track their whereabouts isn’t especially valuable. The Apple Card support has not had any utility for us in our daily life because, again, my kid isn’t actually going anywhere without me or my spouse. There are just very few instances where they’d need to buy something on their own and didn’t have some cash provided to them for that purpose.
I can’t fault Apple for this. It’s obvious that Family Setup was in the works well before the pandemic disrupted everything about our lives, and it’s possible that when things do return to normal, these are features that I’d be looking to utilize. It’s also possible that the value of certain features will become more apparent as my kid gets older and more independent. But right now, the value of having a smartwatch on my eight-year-old’s wrist is not especially high.
Value is certainly subjective, but there’s no denying that an Apple Watch with Family Setup has a high cost. It’s also something that has a limited shelf life with your kid. Apple says it designed the service for kids ages five and up, but as mentioned, even my eight-year-old isn’t independent enough to really make use of most of what it offers. Older kids can take more advantage of it, but it won’t be long before they will not be satisfied with a watch managed by mommy and daddy and will just want an iPhone of their own. That leaves a rather narrow band of age ranges for which Family Setup provides an appropriate amount of utility relative to its cost.
As a parent who will have multiple kids hitting the age where they will want a smartphone in their lives in the near future, I’d really like to see the parental controls and content restrictions available in Family Setup extended to accounts that can be used on a full-fledged iPhone. Right now, many parents rely on third-party apps and device management services to lock down and track the devices their children have. It’d be a lot better if Apple just supported all of this natively. Perhaps that’s on the company’s roadmap. It certainly feels like an obvious evolution of Family Setup.
But for now, Family Setup is limited to the Apple Watch, and it’s not quite the same as a smartphone. For my family, it doesn’t provide enough utility to justify the cost, pandemic lockdown or not. For others, if you’ve been eyeing one of the GPS tracking watches but either didn’t trust the manufacturer or didn’t feel like they are good products, Family Setup does provide a known experience from a company that’s widely trusted when it comes to support and privacy. That trust and experience just come at a cost.
Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge