Child-safe messaging device
November 25, 2014 6:11 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to give my 2 nieces and 1 nephew a shared device this Christmas, with which they can send and receive SMS and MMS messages (or similar) to and from an explicit whitelist of contacts. Apple iMessage is not an option. Is it possible?

The children are all under 10. I'd like them to be able to instant-message with their parents, friends, and trusted adults e.g. grandparents. I'd also obviously like this to be an exciting present for them as well!

iMessage is not an option because some of the whitelist contacts will use non-Apple products: Android, Blackberry, etc. I've looked at supposed iMessage-for-Android apps, and they're simply not viable.

The kids' parents must be able to control the whitelist, and the kids must have no ability to edit it. Obviously no unauthorised messages should come in or go out.

If the device is wi-fi only, rather than 3G/4G/etc, that might actually be a good thing. They'd then be tethered to the house, which could be a good additional safeguard. Plus bills would be non-existent which would definitely be good.

I had looked at using an iPod and it was very appealing due to the in-built ability to restrict access to apps. However any device up to circa £100 would be viable.

Should I be looking at Skype, Google Hangouts, something similar? I'm in the UK, where I believe it's not yet possible to call a phone from Hangouts. So I'm thinking that Hangouts might not be that great either.

I'd like to avoid the need to upgrade OS or software as much as possible, hence wondering if SMS/MMS might work somehow.

Any great ideas?

(Just to pre-empt a little... appropriateness of this solution will ultimately be the choice of the parents, so no need to advise on that aspect. Child safety is key to a workable solution, though.)
posted by ajp to Technology (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a plan for how the three will share the device?
posted by k8t at 6:28 AM on November 25, 2014

Response by poster: Nope. But I shall of course ask the parents first if this is a suitable gift. I'm asking the question here because it seems like something that must exist, but I simply can't find.
posted by ajp at 6:34 AM on November 25, 2014

I use Telegram, which is available on about everything. The default option only allows messages from people in your phone contacts, or people in the same group as you. If you don't set up a username, you're not searchable.
posted by snakeling at 7:11 AM on November 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not 100% sure it fits your needs, but you may want to check out slack? I know they market it as a biz thing, but that's not the only use for it.
posted by doctor tough love at 7:49 AM on November 25, 2014

(My 9-year-old daughter, using an old iPhone on WiFi, iMessages those who have iPhones, and emails those who don't. So far it works pretty well, although we don't have actual technological restrictions, just familial ones (don't text anyone who's not family or one particular friend).

Having used Skype or Google Hangouts, I doubt those would be easier to whitelist.)
posted by leahwrenn at 9:07 AM on November 25, 2014

Response by poster: Telegram is interesting, although it would require everyone the kids know to install Telegram -- their friends, relatives, etc.

Telegram allows users to "pair" the app on a dumb device, like an iPod, with the app on a phone. I'm wondering if this would be the best set-up here. So, the iPod runs Telegram, but their mother's phone runs the Telegram "main" app... I presume the Telegram on the phone would be permitted to add contacts, but the dumb version on the iPod would not? Is that right?

Seems a shame not to be able to use SMS/MMS. Hmmmm.

One of the benefits of iMessage in my understanding is that it transparently takes care of delivery. The user doesn't know or care if messages are sent within iMessage or exit to SMS/MMS/whatever. This means all Incoming SMS etc replies are also transparently handled.

Reasons *against* iMessage or iPhone include:
- Apple will upgrade it or the OS, making an "old iPhone" potentially obsolete within an unknown timeframe.
- It would require a SIM and paying contract.
- The phone would have a phone number, meaning anyone could call the kids. Not good.
posted by ajp at 9:40 AM on November 25, 2014

posted by kuanes at 9:48 AM on November 25, 2014

Response by poster: Well... Viber seems to require iPhone and SIM and contract.

Telegram by comparison does work on iPod, although seems to require pairing with a phone.

The major problem with apps like these is they require all contacts to also have the app, whereas iMessage is transparent and does not require iMessage installation by all contacts.

Maybe I'm coming back to iMessage...! Does it work wi-fi only? If I purchased an old iPhone without a SIM, would it work? What are the chances that Apple will upgrade iMessage so my "old iPhone" solution stops working within months?
posted by ajp at 10:01 AM on November 25, 2014

Do you have Toys R Us over there? They have a series of kid friendly tablets and phones. Some of them are in your price range and do include messaging. You have to check the descriptions though. For example the Android Kurio and Tabby Gamer 5.1 inch Android Tablet both looked like possibilities.
posted by Librarygeek at 10:23 AM on November 25, 2014

Maybe I'm coming back to iMessage...! Does it work wi-fi only? If I purchased an old iPhone without a SIM, would it work? What are the chances that Apple will upgrade iMessage so my "old iPhone" solution stops working within months?

iMessage works wi-fi only, but only to talk to other devices with iMessage. To contact Android and Blackberry devices, you'll need SMS. I wouldn't particularly worry about Apple breaking iMessage on older devices but as far as I know there's no way to get around the platform restriction.

How about AIM? It'd allow each kid to have their own account, which is nice for nominal privacy, and it also works on Windows and Mac, so messages can easily be checked on more than one device. In fact, if the family has three old iPhones or Androids lying around (and many will, or could easily get some), you could install and set up all three, one for each kid, at little cost to you but your time.

AIM does require an app download, but I'd be surprised if you can find anything that gives you free messaging cross-platform that doesn't.
posted by Georgina at 3:22 PM on November 25, 2014

I wasn't clear earlier , I guess. My daughter used iMessage/email on an old 4S that no longer has a phone contract (or SMS capability). So no one can call her and she can call no one, and it only works on wifi.

Keep in mind that not everyone has an SMS messaging plan. It costs me $0.20 per SMS. This is ok, because most people I text with use iMessage, and those that don't send me very few texts (so it's more like a dollar a month instead of whatever the cheapest texting plan is). I'd be ticked if my neice started SMS-ing me all the time. (Of course, my family is iphone-centric, so it's not so much of a problem).

What do the parents of these kids use? If they use iPhones, go with some apple-friendly solution. If they use android, go with an android-friendly solution.

My colleagues in Mexico apparently all use WhatsApp. I think that requires the sender and receiver to both be using it; I think it's device-agnostic.

(Honestly, I think you're premature on this. If you haven't had a conversation about the general suitability of the idea--do the parents even eant the kids to be texting? Is it realistic that they share a device? Do they already have access to such s device? Are there things the kids would want to be able to do on a device other than text? E g apps? Movies? Seems like this would be a good conversation to have. My kids do a lot on the decommissioned iPhones than just message family, although they do that too. )
posted by leahwrenn at 11:46 PM on November 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Let's say a child sends a message using iMessage. If there was a SIM in the phone, and the contact was not using an Apple phone, then the child's phone's iMessage would transparently defer to using SMS. The contact would get the message.

The contact could also initiate conversation by sending an SMS/MMS to the child's phone. Would the child read the incoming message in the SMS client (is there such a thing on an iPhone or is it all iMessage?) and hit reply? Would iMessage again transparently decide if that reply should leave the phone via iMessage-over-data-connection or SMS/MMS-over-3G?

As for being premature -- I do understand the concern. I'm not going to do this if the parents don't want it. However I would like to have a workable solution before I ask them, otherwise I look like a dick. I do genuinely understand concerns here -- but please, as stated right at the beginning, I'm only interested in the technical challenge. Thanks! :)
posted by ajp at 7:17 AM on November 26, 2014

Response by poster: Oh and thanks for the details re iMessage/iPhone on wifi only :)
posted by ajp at 7:18 AM on November 26, 2014

The contact could also initiate conversation by sending an SMS/MMS to the child's phone. Would the child read the incoming message in the SMS client (is there such a thing on an iPhone or is it all iMessage?) and hit reply? Would iMessage again transparently decide if that reply should leave the phone via iMessage-over-data-connection or SMS/MMS-over-3G?

When I use iMessage, when someone texts me (e.g. sends a message from a non-iPhone), I get that message and it is colored green. If someone messages me from an iPhone, it is colored blue. If I send a message from iMessage to an iPhone, the message I send is blue. If I send a message from iMessage to a non-iPhone, the message is green. It's entirely transparent as a user, except for the change in color. (And, in my case, the texting charges on my phone bill later.)

The old contractless iPhone my daughter uses still has its SIM card, but that card isn't hooked up to anything, because the phone isn't ...registered?...with a phone company (we upgraded the phone number to a new phone). So the phone is physically capable of sending SMSs, but not actually capable, because we're not paying for a contract for it. So therefore she can't receive or send SMSes in practice.

If the kids are going to send SMSes, somebody's got to pay for the texting plan---I presume this is still true in the UK.

If cost of sending/receiving texts is a factor, go with What'sApp. (Both people need to be logged into WhatsApp to see the messages though.)

If it's not, go with what's convenient, and most smartphones, at least, can work things out vis a vis iMessage/SMS/whatever Google's version is.
posted by leahwrenn at 11:56 AM on November 26, 2014

Friends of mine use WhatsApp, so I was looking into it before I recommended AIM. It has a few strikes against it for what you want to do:

1 :: WhatsApp requires a phone number for account verification. You could buy a cheap pay-as-you-go sim, verify, then have the parents pop the sim in a safe place, but it adds another layer of hassle.

2 :: WhatsApp has a small cost. (I believe it's around $1 a year.) Not a big deal for the parents but you're asking everybody who wants to text with the kids to buy it, including grandma who probably doesn't have an account set up to download apps, their pre-teen friends whose parents might not want to pay for an app simply so their kids can chat with yours, etc.

3 :: WhatsApp was recently bought by Facebook, whose lax approach to individual privacy may or may not be an issue for those involved. (It would definitely be an issue for me.)

If you don't like AIM, I think the best thing to do is follow leahwrenn's advice: get a device on the same platform as the parents and let everybody else fend for themselves. It's not as though they have to text with an eight-year-old.
posted by Georgina at 3:33 PM on November 26, 2014

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