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Choosing my kid’s first phone came with serious consequences

As parents, we’re all charged with the awesome responsibility of guiding and directing our younglings on the right path to becoming well-rounded adults and productive members of society. Making sure they eat a balanced diet, sending them to the right schools, and engaging them in extra-curricular activities that promote a healthy body and mind are critically important.

When my daughter was born nearly 13 years ago, I never thought that choosing her technology platform would become one of those potentially life-altering decisions.

A different time for phones

During those halcyon days 13 years ago, the smartphone platforms we know today were in the same sort of infancy as my newborn daughter. The first snapshots from minutes after her birth were taken on a shiny new iPhone 3GS. That was nearly a year before the software was even called “iOS” and only a year after Apple had unveiled the App Store.

Baby girl holding 2007 iPhone to her mouth.
My daughter was a (very) early adopter Jesse Hollington

The idea of platform lock-in just wasn’t a thing in those days. Sure, I was used to my iPhone, but if you had suddenly ripped it out of my hand and given me an HTC Incredible instead, I wouldn’t have lost much sleep over it. FaceTime and iMessage didn’t yet exist, and iCloud was still called MobileMe. The App Store had only about 100,000 apps, the vast majority of which fell into the category of silly novelties like iBeer.

Fast forward to 2022, and I’ve realized that as my daughter has entered those awkward years twixt 12 and 20, my decision on her smartphone purchase will have lasting repercussions in a way it never did before. Let’s face it, as much as both Apple and Google want to make it easy to switch teams, both platforms have enough “stickiness” to discourage folks from crossing over to the other side. Some of these issues are technical, such as investments in apps or a more expanded hardware and software ecosystem, while others are purely social.

Your choice of ecosystem

These days, a person’s choice of smartphone influences their other hardware and software decisions perhaps more than any other single factor.

iPhone owners are more likely to gravitate toward a MacBook, HomePod mini, or even an Apple TV set-top box. Apple also makes it trivially easy for iPhone users to store photos, contacts, and calendars in iCloud, and when it comes to messaging, Apple’s iMessage and FaceTime tools work seamlessly. Similarly, those adopting Android handsets will find themselves more comfortable in the warm embrace of Google’s services, such as Gmail, Drive, Photos, and more.

Pixel 6 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro in hand.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

After that, it’s not long before kids will start searching out and downloading the latest apps for their new smartphones. Luckily, games and apps are much more platform-agnostic. As long as your device is up to the task, it doesn’t matter whether you’re playing Genshin Impact on an iPhone or an Android smartphone, and the same is true of social networks. The experience may be slightly different on Android and iOS, but the basic functionality remains the same.

But problems still exist with apps. While Google offers most of its apps on the iPhone, those tools are as native to most Android phones as iCloud is to the iPhone, making for a much better experience. You also won’t find any way to access services like iCloud Photos or iMessages on an Android handset. Knowing which direction to take is hard, especially when it may in turn influence many future technology purchases.

Peer pressure

This brings up the next point when dealing with kids and smartphones. While parents should have the final say, the preferred platform of your offspring is going to be strongly dictated by what all their friends are using. There was once a time when all the cool kids were carrying BlackBerry devices, and it was especially noticeable here in Toronto, which was the heart of BlackBerry country in the ’00s.

Close up of someone typing on a Blackberry keyboard.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Many parents naturally handed down their old BlackBerries to their kids, who quickly latched on to Blackberry Messenger (BBM), the platform’s built-in instant messaging service. For a time, the Blackberry was the perfect device for texting teens, and those who weren’t fortunate to have one became outcasts.

Today, the same thing is happening with the green bubble phenomenon. Kids with iPhones get to use iMessage with its pretty blue bubbles. Those on Android handsets or feature phones are limited to communicating with the rest of the group via SMS. They risk being social pariahs thanks to the green bubbles that appear whenever a message is sent to them.

As The Wall Street Journal noted earlier this year, “teens dread the green bubble.” According to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP), more than 70% of U.S. consumers between 18 and 24 are iPhone users, which suggests that at least as many are starting out with Apple’s platform in their teens. The Journal reports that “the social pressure is palpable” among teens and college students. Some of those interviewed even said they were “ostracized or singled out after switching away from iPhones.”

Yes, there are alternatives like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Snapchat. My daughter prefers to chat with most of her friends on Instagram, of all places, since that’s where they seem to hang out the most. But if all of your kids’ friends are iPhone users, the chances are that’s what yours will want. What’s unusual is that this doesn’t seem to apply nearly as much in the other direction. It probably helps that there’s no single Android brand, but Google doesn’t offer the same social world to lock folks into either. My daughter’s Android-toting friends aren’t using Google Hangouts or Google Meet all that much, and even if they were, those apps are available for the iPhone.

Family harmony

Depending on how much say you’re willing to give your adolescent in choosing their first smartphone, what the rest of the family uses will also factor in. Both Apple and Google offer family-centric features, from shared subscriptions to parental control features like Apple’s Screen Time. These work best when everybody in the household is on the same platform. For instance, since I use an iPhone, I can easily monitor my daughter’s iPhone usage from my device and even approve purchases of apps and in-app content with Face ID. That’s much harder to do if I buy her an Android smartphone.

Whatever I choose for her 13th birthday will be the platform she uses for the rest of her life

She also gets to share the family’s Apple One subscription (even though she really couldn’t care less about Apple Music since none of her friends use it) and many other in-app subscriptions, apps, and media content that I’ve already purchased are also available to her.

There’s a downside to that, though. She only gets access to these as long as she remains in my family. Someday, when she moves away from home, she’ll have to repurchase and subscribe to whatever she wants for herself.

However, she’ll have been steeped for nearly 10 years in whatever platform I’ve chosen on her behalf by then. It’s a big responsibility as the likelihood of her switching to something else at that point is slim, which means that there’s a good chance that whatever I choose for her 13th birthday will be the platform she uses for the rest of her life.

Apple’s walled garden calls

Like most things in parenting, the decision ultimately comes down to my daughter being part of our family. Since our household is already entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, my daughter will have to follow along.

Features like Screen Time and the ability to quickly approve in-app purchases are too useful to give up. It would also be silly to repurchase apps and subscriptions that are already available to an iPhone via family sharing. There are many more subtle things, too, like having her included in HomeKit home automation routines so I don’t leave her in the dark when I walk out the door, and being able to easily share stuff with her via AirDrop.

Fortunately, my daughter doesn’t have any strong preferences; as long as whatever she ends up with can be used to text her friends and play Genshin Impact, she’ll be happy. For now, at least. Things may change down the road, and young adults often blame their parents for many things from their childhood. I can only hope years from now that my choice of a smartphone platform for my daughter won’t be one of them.

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