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A smartphone made for kids has launched in Canada. But does it go far enough?

More teens and even younger kids are using social media today. (Cottonbro Studio) More teens and even younger kids are using social media today. (Cottonbro Studio)
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Navigating the social media minefield has become the new normal for parents and youth.

With more teens and even younger kids using social media today, cyberbullying, child predators and sexting, among other safety and mental health issues, have raised concerns.

Several Ontario school boards this year even joined a $4.5-billion lawsuit against social media giants Meta, Snapchat and TikTok. The boards said the platforms have caused mental health issues and violent episodes in their schools. Similar lawsuits were launched involving hundreds of school districts in the United States.

What's more, the Ontario government announced in April that it would ban cellphone use in elementary and high schools starting in September.

With parents, lawmakers and experts increasingly concerned about the health and safety of kids using social media and excessive screen time, a U.S. company says it has a solution: a "kid-safe smartphone."

How Pinwheel works

Pinwheel made its smartphone for kids available in Canada starting Tuesday.

Pinwheel says in a press release that it is selling the country's first "kid-safe" smartphone for those aged eight to 14, with features such as photo-sharing, more than 1,200 curated apps, texting and games.

"Age-appropriate guardrails" include no internet browser or social media, and parental monitoring tools such as allowing parents to remotely monitor texts, designate contact lists and set usage schedules.

Unlike normal phones, the U.S. parental controls software company says its devices will allow parents to customize settings to suit their children's needs.

"We believe our phones give families a way to help kids develop healthy habits around digital device usage and screentime without the negative impacts and distractions of social media and open Internet access," Pinwheel CEO and founder Dane Witbeck said in a press release.

The Android phones are installed with Pinwheel's operating system with built-in parental controls. Consumers must pay for carrier plans and physical SIM cards separately. The models work on Canada's main phone carriers Bell, Telus and Rogers. Parents will also need to pay a $19.99 monthly subscription fee, or $219.99 for the year, to get the parental controls and a caregiver portal, which allows complete remote access to the phone.

An online safety solution?

Although one Canadian social media safety educator says he sees the Pinwheel phone's benefits, he believes the device isn't enough to keep children safe.

"If we're going to look at coming up with a phone as being the solution to taking care of our kids online, we're failing miserably," Paul Davis, a social media and online safety educator in Vaughan, Ont., said in a video interview with CTVNews.ca. "We don't want to put the responsibility of our children's safety into the hands of an organization or a government entity. We need to take responsibility."

Parents, guardians and caregivers need to be the ones to invest in their kids' lives by properly educating themselves and youth about online safety, Davis said.

For parents who aren't so tech savvy, Pinwheel could help them, but they still need to understand the devices and the applications their children are using, he added. Another solution is to learn how to remove functions and features from their existing phones, he said.

"You have to invest time in knowing what you've put in your child's hands," Davis said. "You will not give the keys to a car to your child and say go drive it. You will spend time with them so they understand how to drive. You will get them signed up for a driver's course. They must pass a test.

"We all have to make the investment into our kids and although tech can seem very, very overwhelming, and it is, with a little bit of parental involvement, some restrictions on devices, connecting with real human friends, we can make it all work."

With files from CTVNewsBarrie.ca's Kim Phillips

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