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Family Setup for Apple Watch: Some Good, Some Bad

This year, we got Charlie his first truly personal device: an Apple Watch SE 2nd gen with Cellular. To put this into product language: we want him to be able to call us, we want to be able to call him, we want it to support payment methods for Metro and some lightweight payments, and we want it to not need its own iPhone or distract at school. I’m not ready to do full administration of my kid’s phone, even if I do that for the computer has access to, and frankly, I’m not sure he’s ready for a whole phone yet.

Charlie’s been after us to let him self-dismiss from school and take Metro home. This, of course, terrifies us. I mean, it shouldn’t, his school is four blocks from the Metro, it’s three stops on the train, and either a 15 minute walk or a 5 minute bus ride home. He’s 9, though, and parents are going to parent. But, we’re both big on kid independence, so we started to think about what he’d need to do it. DC has a program where kids ride free on the Metro, and they’ll issue him a farecard that’s good for bus and Metro trips within DC lines, which can be turned into a SmarTrip card on his watch (more on that in a minute…) Couple that with Schooltime limits, AppleCard Family, Location Sharing with iCloud and maybe we’re good to go?

He doesn’t need the health features of the Series 8, and so we opted to get him an SE via T-Mobile. Price to us? $100 plus a $10/mo cell line on a 2-year contract.

What is Setup Like?

I unboxed his watch on Christmas Eve in the afternoon to get it charged and get it connected. When you bring a Watch that hasn’t been through the setup process next to you iPhone, it offers to either set it up for you, or for a Family Member. I chose the latter. Charlie’s had an Apple ID tied to our Family Sharing account since we setup an old laptop for him for Pandemic School.

Having an Apple ID is required for Family Setup, as is having that Apple ID part of your Family Sharing group with Apple. Once you’ve configured that from your iPhone or a Mac, you’re ready to go.

Setup is pretty painless. You’re walked through all the choices you’re going to have to make: Schooltime? Easy call. Wearing it reverse crown or regular? Harder call! Settings are all something you can revisit once the watch is setup, you just have to be nearby the watch in Bluetooth range.

For Kids Under 13

This is where it gets a little weird. Apple IDs for minors come in two formats: under 13 and over 13. What they can do is different. It is also only tangentially documented. Kids under 13 can’t create their own Apple ID, they have to be made by parent/guardian accounts, for example.

They also cannot use Apple Pay or other similar features of Apple IDs.

I’m not about to want Charlie to have his own line of credit, so Apple Cash will absolutely suffice for payments. However, there’s a huge downfall here, and that’s the inability to get a Transit Card on the device if the user is under 13. When you’re in the Watch app on the iOS device, and attempt to add a card, it will only offer app-based solutions, and that doesn’t work for SmarTrip cards here in DC. I can’t pick a Transit card to add, either. On the Watch itself, I get the option to add a Transit card, but it tells me it must come from a parent or guardian. So I’m stuck, unable to use a Metro card with him. And that’s a bummer.

Some Transit systems use direct payment at the turnstile, and I suspect that Apple Cash might work in those situations, but I can’t tell, because the major metros where I take transit most often (DC, SF) both have sui generis card systems at the turnstiles. I’ll have to test Apple Cash on major transit systems, but I can’t see why it wouldn’t work, but since there’s support for adding a Transit card on the Watch, only it’s broken for under 13s, who knows what else is broken.

Apple’s own documentation is wanting, in this case:

Some Apple ID settings and features work differently for children under 13. For example, a child under 13 can’t create an Apple ID without permission and consent from a parent or guardian. 

Create an Apple ID for your Child

What Works, What’s Missing

After a lot of searching, I ended up finding a canonical guide to what works and what does not work in Family Setup:

  • Kids under 13 can use Fitness and Movement tracking, but it will measure in minutes, not calories, which I actually kinda dig.
  • Kids over 13, but not yet 18, can use high and low heart rate notifications.
  • You must be over 18 to use heart rate variability, fall detection or walking steadiness alerts.
  • Apple Cash Family is available to users under 18.
  • No standard debit or credit cards are available to users under 18 with Family Setup.

Nowhere in any of this is explicit documentation of Transit cards, and that is a huge bummer. Even a call to Apple Support lead to a lot of confused support advisors reading the same docs that I was, and coming away just as confused. Apple has a phenomenal documentation team, but this just felt short on detail, as if the decisions hadn’t been fully made when the docs were written, and no one bothered to get more specifics.

Interestingly, as I went through the setup process, I had to grant significantly more actions on the wrist than I expected to need to do. Assent had to be given for contacts access, as well as location sharing, despite the fact that the user is directly managed by the parent and guardian accounts.

I was also surprised that my wife’s iPhone cannot also manage our Family Setup watches, though she’s also listed as a parent or guardian. That means that only I can adjust some settings, like Schooltime, or get reports on exiting Schooltime during the day. That part is less than ideal, especially in households where a kid may be going back and forth between parental residences.

Is This Enough?

Yes, this is enough. I think Apple can — and should — do better with these experiences, and I hope to learn more ways to make sure that my digital native child is responsible with their technology. We’ve already had to have long conversations about response times for messages, as well as when it’s okay to call someone, and what the right manners are. (Text first! Respect Timezones! There’s no expectation of instant availability! Phone calls are interruptions if they’re unexpected!)

But, we’ve also taught him to use it to ask for directions and navigate the Metro with it, as well as figure out bus times, and more. We’re not ready to turn him entirely loose on Washington on his own yet, and there will be a lengthy period of training this springtime on getting safely home, first as a follower, then as a leader, then just on his own, with an admonishment to call for help if he needs it.

There’s been a lot of conversation in our parent friend group around the age of appropriateness for technology. With the Apple Watch and Family Setup, I think there’s a basic set of abilities and functionality, in a durable body and form, that can provide appropriate enablement for a 9-year-old. I don’t have to worry about the web on the watch, or media access, for they just do not exist on the watch.

K-12 admins know what it is to fully manage school devices, and they have orders of magnitude better tools than just the basic ones that Apple provides in Screen Time, and even they are some of the most greybearded of us all, as they know what it takes to do it and do it well. I don’t look forward to having to take on that mantle as Charlie gets older, and needs more than just a watch to navigate the world, but this lets me get him excited about everything that technology can bring him, without having to let him loose on a web that we, as adults, barely understand, despite being present for its own adolescence and growth into a strange adulthood.

Apple has a ways to go, but this is, without question, a positive start.

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