Apple Watch SE for kids: A review of Family Setup after two weeks


Setting up an Apple Watch for a kid isn’t that difficult, but you need a cellular watch and cellular plan.

Scott Stein/CNET

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“Scott, did you charge the phone?” I hear this and know my wife meant the Apple Watch. But it’s how we think of it in our family: It’s the wrist-phone. Now that the new Family Setup feature allows Apple Watches to work for family members, unleashing the watch from the iPhone a bit, it’s suddenly become a way for my kid to get connected.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve set up an Apple Watch SE as a phone for my 11-year-old son, and that’s exactly how he uses it. He wears it on bike rides and walks, he gets calls from friends… and then he takes it off. Getting my kid used to wearing the Apple Watch all the time hasn’t been as easy as I thought.

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This was always intended as an experiment, and not something we would force on him. As a parent, the first thing you’ll want to consider before you go all-in on a watch for your kid is whether or not it makes sense as a phone alternative. Does your kid want to wear a watch in the first place?

While it’s not been the always-on hit for my kid that I expected, the Apple Watch SE has proven to me that Apple’s smartwatch has finally begun to break away from the iPhone, and can function as a family phone alternative. Just not an affordable one.

Day 0: Setting up Family Setup on the Apple Watch 

The Apple Watch has always needed an iPhone to work. It still does, but now you can set up a family member’s Apple Watch so they don’t need an iPhone of their own. I’d been thinking about getting my kid a phone for keeping in touch while he’s at school and during his commute back, but maybe he doesn’t need a full-fledged phone and the Apple Watch could fit the bill. 

I received a test Apple Watch SE and iPhone with a preset phone number from Apple to try Family Setup ahead of the Apple Watch SE’s release, and was curious to see what would happen when I tried to set it up. So far it’s been a much less painful process than I expected, but it will only work with a cellular version of the Apple Watch, Series 4 or above, which adds up (an extra $50 for the cellular SE, or $100 extra for the cellular Series 6), plus the added cost to your service bill (roughly $10 per month in the US).

Because Apple no longer sells the Series 4 or Series 5, the Apple Watch SE is currently the least expensive of the Family Setup-enabled watches at $329 (£319, AU$499). The only other Apple Watch officially sold by Apple is the latest Series 6, which starts at $499 (£479, AU$749) for the 40mm cellular model. 

To add a new family watch on the iPhone Watch app, the family member already has to be added to your account via Family Sharing in iCloud settings — you’ll need to set that up if you haven’t already. 

A new phone number for the watch gets added, but as I mentioned, that also means an added cost to your cellular plan, around $10 a month. All of that could add up.

From there, I was also given the option to track health data on the other watch. This creates a whole new subprofile on the Health app, showing exercise and activity stats plus heart rate data, and WatchOS 7’s new Mobility data (I see how fast he walks up and down stairs). Having access to your kid’s daily health data sounds a bit intrusive, but it could be a fantastic idea if you’re giving this to keep tabs on an older relative. Apple’s remote health monitoring opens up the possibility of letting someone have a watch as an emergency device. Just keep in mind that the person wearing the watch would still need to know how to use it, and charge it daily.


Setting up Schooltime, which is basically a timed period where a Do Not Disturb mode is on.

Scott Stein/CNET

Day 1: Schooltime to focus

There’s a Schooltime feature on Family Setup meant to help kids concentrate by blocking everything but a basic watch face. My oldest kid is doing remote learning in the side room downstairs, so we’ll see how this works. Turning the digital crown will override School Time and activates the rest of the watch, but it also alerts the parent that the mode has been turned off (it turns back on when the watch times out again).

I feel weird spying on my kid like this, but if you’re already monitoring Screen Time settings on their devices, this doesn’t seem to be much different. But it also got annoying at home, because home life and school blend together… and unless I change the settings, anything else he does, like making a call, keeps requiring him to keep turning the crown to override.

Day 1.5: Adding contacts 

I put my number and my wife’s onto my kid’s watch, but he could still dial out to other numbers too with a number pad in the phone app. He calls me on a bike ride, and he seems happy. He can also add his own contacts. 


Schooltime Report sounds intimidating. It just means your parent knows when you’ve checked other things on the watch.

Scott Stein/CNET

Read more: Best kids’ tablets for 2020

Day 15: How it’s all been shaking out

After two weeks, my son has gotten used to the watch interface, and pulled off some fun tricks. He used Maps to help navigate home from the park, and set up a contact for one of his friends. He’s settled on the Animoji watch face because he thinks it’s fun and weird. Aside from that though, I’m not sure he’s gotten into the many other subfeatures of the Apple Watch, like Music. He doesn’t have Bluetooth headphones, so the music feature wouldn’t even help him. I showed him Voice Memos, and he didn’t really care.

But I can tell he really likes it as an easy way to reach friends. Or us (sometimes). He found the watch upstairs, where he left it playing Fortnite and chatting the other day. Now he’s wearing it to the park. I like chatting with him quickly on calls. He calls me up and pretends to be the Swedish Chef sometimes. That said, we don’t spend much time apart right now. I’m upstairs, he’s downstairs, I work from home, he goes to school at home. But that will change someday, hopefully in the near future, and it could eventually become a more helpful lifeline when he does venture out without me. But getting him to charge the thing up is another story.

The battery life on the 40mm cellular version of the Apple Watch SE with Family Setup is less than 24 hours. And if you don’t remember to charge it (which tends to happen on accident more often than not), it will probably be dead the next day. He doesn’t like wearing the watch to bed, so it’s theoretically easy to charge it up overnight. And yet, how often does that happen? 

It makes me think about what Apple really needs to do with the Apple Watch next: fix that battery life. One day or less doesn’t cut it. It needs to last several days for it to be easier to use, especially for a child or elderly adult. 

Apple also made Family Cash sharing a thing, so I could send him money onto the Apple Watch to pay for things when he was going out. Theoretically, that’s great, and it’s a helpful perk to have. But in practice, we don’t go to stores right now, and we don’t use tap-to-pay either at the moment. Also, I can’t guarantee that digital cash will help him in an emergency. I’d still give him cash just in case.

Conclusion: May work as a basic phone alternative, but consider the tradeoffs

The Apple Watch really could be the phone I’d been considering for my kid, which is cool. But at $329, it’s practically the same price as a low-cost iPhone SE and not quite as appealing to a kid who’s used to doing more on a larger screen. There are the fitness benefits, and it can be a little iPod for music if you use Apple Music. There’s not much cost savings here, but it’s possibly a great way to stay connected without giving them all the time-wasting temptations of a full-fledged smartphone. Just make sure your kid is comfortable with a watch, otherwise they might feel like you’re strapping a tracker to their wrist. 

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