By Nohad Mouawad
I remember so well when I got my first mobile phone. It was my 16th birthday, and after asking my parents for months, they conceded and got me a brand-new Erikson. The kind that you could flip open the keypad. I felt so grown up and cool. Now I could text and call my friends whenever I wanted, as long as the phone credit didn’t run out. For the two years before my big sweet 16 gift, my mom would let me borrow her phone when I met my friends at the mall or the movies, so that she could call and contact me, to make sure that I was okay and that we knew where to meet for pickup.
Fast forward 23 years later to 2023, and to my situation with my 10-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. In this version of the future, phones are not just for calling and texting. Phones are for entertainment, taking pictures, gaming, communication and finding any information at any time. Adults in 2023 not only need phones to survive (directions, grocery delivery, booking a restaurant or a flight) but are also completely addicted to their devices and rarely put them down. My phone is so important that I bought a cover with a strap so that I can wear it at all times.
Needless to say, my older kids, and even my 5-year-old, talk about phones and devices incessantly. The older 2 have been asking when they will get their own phones since they were 7 or 8 years old! Most parents today face a similar situation: kids who want all the devices and many peers who have their own devices, as young as 5 (believe it or not) or as late as the teen years. The question is: is it okay to give your kid a phone? And at what age?
Consider the Usefulness: As I said, today a mobile phone is crucial and more than necessary for any adult. There would be almost no way to communicate and be a part of functioning society without one, especially a smart phone, as we use it to reach our email, message, use social media, take pictures and videos, and find vital information from recipes to directions and facts. For a child, however, how useful is a mobile phone? First of all, are they leaving the house without any adult supervision? Do they need to stay in touch with you as they walk to school or ride public transportation on their own? If they are under the age of 12 that is probably unlikely, especially in the UAE. In terms of entertainment, such as accessing YouTube, Netflix and even educational apps, these kinds of things can be done through a tablet device, like an iPad, that the family keeps at home.
Think About their Self-Regulation: My advice is, even if your child has their own tablet, this should be locked with a passcode or controlled by app timers and other parental controls. As adults, we often find ourselves scrolling mindlessly on our phones or tablets during the day and suddenly wondering: what was I supposed to be doing? At our age, we have just enough willpower and logic (most of the time) to snap out of it and get back to what we need to do. We also need a little less sleep than growing children and can manage if we don’t get enough of it. Since most of us grew up in an era before smart phones, we did get too much TV time, but we had more room to learn self-regulation. This means that we were not distracted by the invention of smart phones. When we were bored or had homework to do, we had to deal with the situation at hand, and there wasn’t a device or streaming platform (like Netflix or YouTube) to hook us and distract us from everything we needed to do or our normal feelings of boredom and anger. When we give our kids a phone or device with no limits on it, their underdeveloped brains are getting wired to the clicking and scrolling at a very early age, and the temptation to be always on their device is too great for them to control. It is similar to giving your kid a cupboard full of sweets and treats in their room and letting them have full access, any time. The temptation to indulge is just too great.
Teach them Responsibility: Another thing to think about, before you give your kid their first mobile phone, is can they actually keep track of it? Your child might have been asking for a smart phone for a very long time, but if they lose it on the first day they take it out of the house, that’s a lot of money down the drain, never mind the personal information and photos they have on their device. Personally, my kids can’t even keep track of their jackets and water bottles for longer than a couple of weeks, so I really doubt that an expensive phone would last long with them. It’s normal for our children to lose their things and forget about them, as their brains and their logical reasoning are not as fully developed as adults’ brains are. I know that I did not become even remotely organized until my 30s! However, in my case, smart phones weren’t even available until then.
Delay, Delay and Delay: My view is that if you can delay giving them a smart phone until they are older, the more prepared they will be for the responsibility, and the longer you can delay their temptation to be on their device all the time. In our house, we have been saying “no phones before age 12,” for the past 3 years. I don’t know if 12 is the ideal age to get a phone at, and as my daughter’s 11th birthday approaches, I even worry that 12 might be too soon, but I found myself under increasing pressure to give a number or timeline to my kids, who live in a phone-obsessed world. For some families, middle school might be the right time. For others, high school is a better moment to give their kids a phone, when they are well into their teen years and more independent. In the meantime, if your kid really wants to be able to communicate with you, there are some alternatives to a proper smart phone. One is a kids’ smart watch. You can buy these on Amazon, and they allow your kid to call and text with a SIM card, but only the numbers that you input into the watch. You can also track your kid using GPS if you need to know where they are. Some include a few games, but these are limited. Most schools won’t allow kids to use these during class time. To be fair, these watches also have their drawbacks. When I got my daughter one, she jumped straight into the pool, on the first day she wore it, but since it costs much less than a phone, I guess it was less of a problem…?
If You Give In: So maybe none of the above reasons have convinced you to put off buying a phone for your kid. Maybe their begging and pleading have gotten to you, and you promised them a smart phone for their birthday or another special occasion. Maybe you actually like the idea of them having their own device, instead of using yours, and you also want to be able to contact them when they’re coming home on the school bus or when they’re at home or a friend’s house and you’re at work. If that’s the case, then be sure to set up parental controls on your child’s device, including app timers. With the Apple iPhone you can actually access your child’s home screen and see all their activity. Also, keep in mind that social media before the age of 16 is usually a bad idea.
In Europe, it is technically illegal for a child under 16 to have their own social media account that is not run by their parents. If your kid does end up with an Instagram account, you should be following them, but do know that you won’t have access to their private messages and see any adult who is trying to contact them. This is the danger. On top of that, kids these days, who were born in the age of the Internet and social media, might have trouble understanding that anything they post or send on the Internet is there to stay and could even affect their future, from university to future job prospects. Talk to your kids and monitor their activity online and on their phones. Make sure you have a trusting relationship, but also make sure they understand that if they don’t follow your rules for screentime, homework and social media, that you will take their phone away for a period of time. Having a phone as a kid should be a privilege not a right!
For more information on Internet and social media safety:
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