Updated: Oct 24, 2019
Written by Assoc Prof Dr Alvin Ng Lai Oon, Clinical Psychologist and Founding President of the MSCP
Smartphones offer many advantages in today’s world, and are a convenient way to stay connected. Your child is just a call or text away and you can easily check on him or give him an update of your own plans at any time. In emergencies, a smartphone can allow you to quickly contact or update each other. School-going kids may even demand to have their own smartphones as a means of keeping in touch with their friends. However, there may be unintended results that affect your child’s mental and physical health.
No fixed age
Using a specific age as a means to gauge whether your child is ready for his own smartphone is not recommended. It is more appropriate to base it upon his phone-use competency, maturity and sense of responsibility.
Pay attention to signs such as how he cares for his belongings (does he often lose things, etc.), whether or not he is generally responsible and reliable, and how much you can trust him to adhere to your rules. If the signs are positive, he may be ready for his own smartphone. The next question is whether or not he actually needs one.
There are some potential problems that you may face, such as:
A decline in the parent-child bond. He may end up spending more time on his phone texting friends, playing games, or going through social media. This may lead to less quality time spent with family.
Limits his creativity. An over-dependence on his smartphone to keep himself occupied would inevitably lead to less creativity. Remember how we ‘invented’ our own games to keep ourselves occupied as children?
A potential source of addiction. With social media, surfing the net, uploading photos to Instagram, tweeting, playing games, or chatting, there are so many things that could get him hooked. This may seriously interfere with the ability to function properly academically, lead to behavioural problems (e.g. he may become cranky or surly when denied permission to use his phone) or cause loss of sleep. The only sure way to prevent this is to ensure that you monitor his phone usage and instil good phone-use habits in him, e.g. teaching him how to set limits on his ‘phone time’ and adhering to them.
Cyberbullying. Smartphones may be a boon for social interaction, but it is also a source of potential problems, especially cyberbullying. Be sure to educate your child about this to prevent him from becoming a victim, or equally as important, not be a cyberbully.
Multi-tasking. A lot of kids (and even adults) think they can multi-task, but multi-tasking means that one is not paying full attention to what they are supposed to be doing in the first place. If he is walking or cycling, he should remain focused and pay full attention to his surroundings. Texting or fiddling with the phone, especially when near or on the road is dangerous! Moreover, research in cognitive psychology has evidence that we actually do NOT multitask – we only switch our attention from one task to another really quickly.
Be sure to monitor his usage. However, there is a fine distinction between monitoring and ‘snooping’ as he would undoubtedly want some privacy as well. That is why it is important to establish trust, a close parent-child bond, and open lines of communication with each other.
Encourage him to confide in you, especially if he receives weird texts, chats, or calls that make him feel uncomfortable. Should you want to install a GPS locator service, do so with his knowledge. Be careful not to abuse it by demanding for an account of every location he was at, as it would indicate a lack of trust in him.
The bigger issue here is to educate him on how to use a smartphone appropriately. Some guidelines you may follow include:
1. Start them off with a basic phone. If your purpose is to stay in touch via text/calls, a basic phone would suffice. It would also serve to teach him that phones are tools and not toys. You may then ‘upgrade’ it to a smartphone at a later date, if he is able to comply with all your rules.
2. Set limits. No phones during family time, e.g. when eating together, at family gatherings, etc. If he has a hard time complying, you may have to set harder limits:
Use a plan with a fixed amount and make him pay for the extra charges.
Limit or block his Internet access except for designated times.
3. Do not answer if unknown. Teach him to ignore calls, texts, or chats from people that he does not know.
4. Do as you say. Most important of all, follow your own rules! Be a shining example of how you want him to behave, otherwise your message will be undermined and you will lose trust that is very difficult to rebuild.
5. Teach him social skills. Social etiquette, conflict resolution and emotional management skills are very important especially with the use of social media. As he is still a dependent minor, you should regularly monitor his usage/activities. Make it a point to let him know that he can seek your help and advice whenever he is unsure of what to do.
Safety is paramount
Safety should be a prime consideration at all times, so do not neglect to teach him how to use his smartphone responsibly and safely. This encompasses things such as safety near/on the road, sexual predators (online safety), and also cyberbullying (both to prevent him from being a victim or the perpetrator).
Lastly, bear in mind that a smartphone is not a necessity but a privilege – if your child is not ready for it, then he might be better off without one at all. Before he can have one, you as a parent should feel confident that your child knows how to independently handle a smartphone responsibly and safely. Let him prove his claim to ownership by showing adequate maturity and trustworthiness to handle the responsibility of owning a smartphone.