Apple’s Thoughtful Family Setup Service Can Probably Be Replaced With a Leash and the Fear of God

An approximation of what the watch would look like on the arms of a very small child. (Photo: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo)
An approximation of what the watch would look like on the arms of a very small child. (Photo: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo)

As a child, I’d wander. My mum would take my siblings and I to the mall, and inevitably my little developing brain would be bored by shopping that did not involve me personally. I would disappear. My mum remembers these times with a vague hint of concern; my sister remembers them with irritation. I just remember clearly the time I disappeared for so long they were in the car waiting, with the car running, when I finally decided to return from my sojourn. Apple’s new Family Setup service for the Apple Watch, which allows you to pair multiple cellular watches to a single iPhone and dole them out to the phoneless, is intended to solve problem children like 6-year-old me.

A leash might be a better idea — and cheaper.

The invasive tracking of children with technology isn’t something Apple invented. There are plenty of GPS trackers and bulbous kid-friendly “watches” intended to let a parent know everything about their child when that child is out of sight. Apple’s implementation of technology takes a more thoughtful approach and seems to come with the respect for privacy that Apple’s made a part of its brand. Besides GPS-tracking, the watch wearer has access to texting and calling, and the phone user can control the watch’s contact list and even manipulate internet access to keep the watch wearer from being distracted if they’re in, say, a school where GPS trackers probably aren’t critical.

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As a child, I absolutely would have loved a watch like this and not realised my parents were using it to hunt me down when I decided to play hide-and-seek in the women’s section at Neiman’s. But I don’t know if my parents actually would’ve gotten one for me, because as cool as it is, it’s still a $US280 ($382) communications device that’s pretty delicate compared to traditional kid-oriented gadgets. (Note: The $US200 ($273) Apple Watch Series 3 doesn’t work with Family Setup, so you’d have to buy a pricier cellular watch for your child.)

The watch could be an interim device, between nothing at all and the iPhone that will inevitably fuse with their hand. From my experience with many nephews, godchildren, and kids of close family friends, a watch would be best for kids in the 6 to 12 region (something confirmed by parents I asked). Those kids will probably appreciate baby’s first eternally connected device, but I still have to wonder what parent will actually want to fork over $US280 ($382) minimum for a watch to strap on a kid who can’t be trusted with a phone. That’s $US280 ($382) for a watch that almost certainly hasn’t been tested for siblings beating the shit out of each other with plastic swords or copious amounts of snot or dips into the mud on Field Day.

Maybe the Watch SE, which is the cheapest Apple Watch that Family Setup will work with, can handle the absolutely disgusting amount of fluids a small child prone to wandering produces, but $US280 ($382) is still a lot to ask for most parents. This seems like the kind of “gift” dad bestows on the kids after the divorce in a bid to buy love — not a practical tool in a typical parent’s arsenal.

The leash my sister begged my parents to buy for me is both cheaper and more effective for the runner kids that this watch would be most useful for.

The other suggested demographic for Family Setup are older people who no longer need, or want, a phone. I asked my 70-year-old mother if she’d want me to set up an Apple Watch on my phone and send it to her so she could track her heart rate at the gym and she declined (she hates having to charge gadgets). I then asked if she’d ever want it so I could track her in case she falls, or contact her in case she’s wandered away from her phone, and the “go to hell” wasn’t said verbally, but it was definitely transmitted smoothly through the speaker on my iPhone 11 Pro.

We both agreed that if she was ever at the point she needs that kind of monitoring, we’d be talking about memory care facilities first. But she also said she did have friends who would appreciate the connection. Some people, she noted, really enjoy the invasive nature of a system like this and would view it as an expression of concern and love rather than a shredding of privacy. My mum doesn’t give her name when they ask for it for her Starbucks order so I probably should have known this wouldn’t be for her.

In all these use cases, there has to be an implicit giving of consent between the person manning the phone and the one wearing the watch. They have to consent not only to keeping the watch safe but to following the laws set down by the phone haver. While that might be an easy ask of a 10-year-old and an uncomfortable ask of a 70-year-old, that’s a lot to ask of a 6-year-old. Maybe just get the 10-year-old a cheap Android One phone. Maybe just have a different and more realistic conversation with that 70-year-old. And maybe just buy the 6-year-old a leash.