Like most parents, I can definitely see the benefits of giving my child a smartphone. It would give me peace of mind knowing that I can stay in contact at all times. Not to mention peace and quiet from all the pestering. And my own phone could finally be free of sticky fingerprints and apps like Plants Vs Zombies.
But however tempting it is, I’ve always been reluctant to give in. Not least because I know how hard it is to manage usage and ensure they’re not exposed to inappropriate content when they have a device of their own. And working in the mobile phone industry for years has only made me more determined to keep my children smartphone-free for as long as possible.
My son Dante is now 11. And amazingly, so far I’ve stood strong. To be fair, the last time he mentioned it, I suggested we treat him to his very own dumbphone. I even found one that looked a bit like my first Nokia 3310, complete with a number keypad, navigation buttons and a hideous black and white screen.
I told him this could be a perfect compromise, giving him the option to call Dad’s taxi service for lifts, without giving him unrestricted access the internet. Somewhat unsurprisingly, my son shot that down with a distinctly unimpressed ‘Nah, you’re alright’. So we agreed to let dad win this one and we put the problem on silent.
But when Dante and I were asked to review a new smartphone aimed specifically at keeping kids safe, it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.
The Monqi phone is powered by a custom-built simplified version of the Android software that you’ll find on Samsung and HTC phones. Available for £149.99 exclusively at Carphone Warehouse, it’s a smartphone that gives parents full control over their child’s phone usage through an app installed on mum or dad’s handset.
The app lets you monitor everything your child is doing on their phone: so you can see which websites they’re visiting and how long they spend playing games. It also enables you to approve contacts before they’re added, so they can’t chat to anyone without your say-so.
Not only that, it also allows you limit the amount of time they spend gaming, control which apps they download and block in-app purchases. So there’s no chance of you being hit by an unexpectedly ruinous bill for extra Pokeballs, so they can catch ‘em all.
Perhaps most important for parents though is that it’s equipped with location-tracking features that mean you can see where your child is at all times. You can check when they arrive home from school. And if they really are at their friend’s house or hanging around behind the bike sheds.
Dante and I spent a week with the Monqi. Would it bridge the generational divide? Can kids find a way around the security features? And would it impress my tech-savvy tweenager? Here’s what we made of it.
Ease of use and set-up
Getting started with the Monqi phone was easy. It’s just a case of downloading the free app on your smartphone. It’s available for iPhones and Android handsets (Samsung Galaxy phones, HTC, Motorola, etc). Once you’ve got that, you’ll be prompted to enter your phone number and email address and set a password and profile picture.
You can pair your phone to the Monqi handset by scanning a unique barcode generated on the Monqi phone, so you can start managing the Monqi phone using the app.
You can also add a ‘fellow caretaker’, so another parent or guardian is also able to see what’s what and take charge of the Monqi handset with you. Which will give you extra peace of mind. And it means dad can't be painted as the bad guy if I limit his gaming to an hour a day.
Dante seemed to get to grips with it fast. I’m not sure if that means he’s a boy genius or if it’s down to the simplified software that the Monqi phone runs. Or more likely, he’s just been using friends’ smartphones without telling me.
The Monqi isn’t 4G. That means that web browsing is on the slow side and there was a fair bit of buffering when we tried to watch an episode of Adventure Time.
Dante: It’s really easy to work out how to use it, like changing the wallpaper and set my own pin code and stuff.
Dad: Yep, but remember: I can override your pin from the Monqui app on my phone [evil laugh].
Dante: But it’s Android like yours, right?
Dad: Absolutely. Underneath the Monqui skin it’s just a standard Android phone, So you could even access the Play Store if I let you.
Dante: Which you’d never do.
Dad: I’m afraid not. Still, it’s good that having a simplified system makes it easy for you to work it out on your own.
Design and durability
Monqi’s phone looks like pretty much any other smartphone. Not so attention-grabbing that it’ll attract the attention of sticky-fingered imps at school. But it won’t shame you if you whipped it out in the playground.
At five inches, the screen’s a good size. And seems to fit pretty comfortably in little hands.
Better still, although it’s made of plastic, it seems robust enough to withstand being thrown around in a backpack and definitely survived the odd drop that Dante thought I hadn’t spotted.
Dad: So the phone is still in one piece then?
Dante: Yeah. I was careful with it. But I did accidentally drop it a couple of times and it was fine.
Dad: Do you think you would need a case for it to make sure it doesn’t get scratched?
Dante: That’d be a good idea. But I don’t like the one it comes with. I’d like to get one with my favourite characters on, like Adventure Time or Avengers.
Dad: I agree but it probably won’t be easy to find a case for this phone brand.
I’m not a helicopter parent and like Dante to have a degree of freedom. But at the same time, you can’t be too careful and I’m just as susceptible to scaremongering stories as the next dad.
For that reason, I really appreciate the location-tracking feature that lets me see Dante’s whereabouts. I found it easy to use too. And Dante appreciated the fact that he didn’t have to pause his game of Fifa to take an embarrassing ‘are-you-alright?’ call from his deeply uncool parents.
Contacts management is a great feature and enables me to see who they are in contact with and when.
I was unable to install Gmail or any Google app such as Chrome, even when approved from the Monqi parent app. The app does warn against setting a Google account as it means providing access to the Play Store and subsequent paid-for and potentially inappropriate content.
Dad: How did you feel about me seeing where you are at all times?
Dante: I’m okay with it.
Dad: I bet you won’t be in a couple of years.
Dante: But you can do it with any phone really. You did it when we lost mummy’s phone. You tracked it and found out she’d left it at the gym.
Dad: True but this is a lot easier to set up and use, and accurate as long as you have signal. So after a week, what did you find it most useful for?
Dante: Texting you and mummy of course
Dad: Yeah, you definitely did a lot of that.
Limiting usage of apps and games and monthly allowances
App scheduling is pretty easy too. I liked that I could call time on nighttime gaming, so he wasn’t too excitable at bedtime. And I could stop him idling away his time on games when he should be doing his homework.
The Jungle Store, which is effectively a specially curated mini version of the grown-ups' Google Play app store, had a pretty extensive range of games that Dante liked. And reassuringly there was no sign of adult-themed titles, a la Grand Theft Auto and its ilk.
It’s also handy that the Monqui store only contains selected apps with no in-app purchases. Apps and games which normally cost money can be downloaded free if you subscribe to the Monqui store. It’s £4.49 a month, which isn’t bad considering apps are also ad-free.
Dad: How do you feel about having me controlling your phone?
Dante: I don’t mind. It’s good in a way because it stops me from buying stuff by mistake.
Dad: Being able to assign a different time allowance for each app is great.
Dante: So could you just approve Zombie Tsunami I just downloaded? Half an hour a day?
Dad: Zombie Tsunami will stay on the unapproved list, I’m afraid.
Dante: Also I’ve installed Soundcloud but I can’t use it.
Dad: I can explain that. We share a Soundcloud account that’s linked to my Google account, so you installed it alright. But it won’t let you use it because I’d have to enable this feature by enabling the Google Play Store. And that would open the floodgates to the Google Play store.
Dante: Spotify works though.
Dad: Spotify is fine because you just need username and password. It’s only apps that require a Google log-in that will cause a problem. So you’re out of luck if you need to use a Google app like Gmail.
One of the main reasons why I’d decided against giving my son a smartphone was that it would mean unrestricted access to a camera.
Dante is, like his father, a photography enthusiast and I often let him borrow my digital camera when we go on nature walks and trips to the zoo. But I don’t like the idea of him being able to send and receive photos without my knowledge. As much as I trust my son, we’ve all read the horror stories.
But what did my delightful 11-year-old use his first ever cameraphone for? Annoying his little sister of course.
And while this was nowhere near as bad as it could be, I still had to teach him that it’s wrong to take a photo of someone without their permission and make him delete them.
The camera itself is pretty basic. But the image quality is pretty good most of the time and it’s certainly more than adequate for your average 11-year old.
Monqi camera sample dog
Monqi camera sample bookcase
Monqi camera sample Playmobil
Monqi camera sample toy horse
Dante: So I found out that even if you lock me out of the phone I can still take pictures and videos.
Dad: Yes and drive your little sister crazy. Being annoying and take videos of people without their permission is not on. Unfortunately, the camera app can’t be locked individually which isn’t great. And it worries me that there's no way for me to access or delete the pictures you have taken.
Dante: Pictures are not great anyway.
Dad: You’re supposed to stay still when you take the picture. But I must admit the camera is a bit on the basic side.
Dante: And also I can call you or text you when it’s locked.
Dad: Which is fine I guess, but I am uneasy about that “emergency call” feature on the lock screen.
Dante: Me too. I called it once by mistake.
Another good feature of the Monqi app is that you can check the phone’s battery life. So you know if they’re running low, or if they haven’t called you because their phone has died. It also means you can take action if you see they’ve forgotten to charge it overnight.
Monqi’s blurb claims the battery gives you 96 hours on standby or 10 hours of life when it’s being used. We found we got closer to five or six when Dante was using it as heavily as I’d let him. Although to be fair, that’s on a par with most budget-friendly smartphones. And it was certainly enough to keep him quiet on long car journeys.
After a full day of texting and an hour or two playing Plants vs Zombies the battery got depleted. And I’m conscious of the fact that real-time location tracking, as smooth as it can work, is always relying on a switched-on phone.
I was also a bit surprised that the charging port is located at the top of the phone, which is a bit impractical. But then again Dante's unlikely to be using the Monqi phone while it’s charging.
The Monqui is a well-executed solution to the problem of giving children their first phone.
The software works flawlessly for app usage limitation, location tracking (subject to mobile data coverage) and managing contacts.
So for the purpose of controlling the usage of a phone used primarily for calling, texting and playing the odd game from Monqi’s own Jungle store, this is a winner.
I really liked the Monqi phone. I could play on most of my favourite games and I knew couldn’t get into trouble for using it when I wasn’t supposed to or buying something by mistake.
It made me feel safe that my parents could check where I was and I liked sending texts to them and my friends.
I’ve wanted a smartphone for ages but I’ve never been allowed one before. And if this is the only one mummy and daddy will let me have, it will definitely be top of my Christmas list.
Find out more and buy the Monqi phone.