New age debate: At what age do you give a child their own phone?

From negative effects on mental health to the dangers of unfettered access to the internet, there are numerous risks to consider

Friends in class using mobile phone during lesson
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The question posed in this article's headline is one many parents wrestle with these days, and my own home is no exception. My eldest is only six, and yet she doesn't waste an opportunity to negotiate for her own phone, presenting myriad reasons why she "needs" one.

When her attempts fail, she ­switches tactics, and tries to get us to promise she can have one by age seven, by age nine, by age 11. I’m always loathe to commit to a number. After all, buying a child a phone is like handing them a key to unfettered access to the internet, and all the dangers that come with it.

According to a recent study ­commissioned by the Priory Group in the UK and the Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, 44 per cent of the 1,000-plus parents surveyed said they wouldn’t mind supporting a smartphone ban for children under the age of 16. Of the group sampled, 92 per cent said their worry stems from the negative impact of social media on a young person’s mental health.

Would an outright ban work?

Careless parents using wireless technology at home while not paying attention to their small children. Focus is on parents. Getty Images

“As parents, we have been averse to allowing any device to become a part of our children’s routine,” adds Abid. However, the bring-your-own-device policy adopted by his children’s schools, demanding that they carry a tablet or iPad, had proved counterproductive to his parenting style.

"It's hooking the kids to their gadgets not only in the class, where it affects their networking at the peer level, but also when they are back home. Supporting a ban on gadgets in the classroom for a certain age level makes sense, and doesn't necessarily mean supporting a complete ban on phones for kids. They could have monitored phone usage, but why would they need it in school?"

School, arguably, is where pressure stems from, which is driving so many children to beg for their own phones. Emirati mother Noor Shamma says her 10-year-old daughter, Salma, is the only one among her group of friends who doesn’t have a smartphone, and the young girl doesn’t pass up an opportunity to remind her mum of the travesty of the situation. Similarly, Syrian mother Maysoon Barber, who lives in Abu Dhabi, says her nine-year-old son is a rarity among his friends; the others own the iPhone X or the latest Samsung. “I find it unreasonable. His friends are too young to have phones; their ­parents are exposing them to ­dangers,” she maintains, saying that her son owns an iPad that he can use to send his mother messages when she is at work. His parents bought him the iPad because they didn’t him to feel left out, considering all the kids around him owned the gadget as well.

“We don’t apply the left-out theory any more,” says Barber. “Many of his friends have phones, but that doesn’t mean he will get one, because he doesn’t need it. He understands now that certain things come at different points in life.”

Explain, don’t evade

Using the approach of explaining your reasoning to your child can go a long way, says psychologist Tanya Dharamshi, clinical director at The Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai. There isn’t necessarily an easy answer to pacify a child when all of their friends possess something they don’t, but as a parent, you have to at least try.

“Having an open discussion with your child about the potential dangers and addictive nature of smartphones is a good place to start,” says Dharamshi. “Be honest about your concerns and ensure they clearly understand why you are making this decision.”

Certainly, there are scenarios when children may need a phone, say if they are travelling alone to and from school. Lisa Irwin, a mother of four from the UK who lives in Abu Dhabi, bought her 10-year-old son, Ollie, his first smartphone recently. She says it’s because he is away at boarding school and it made sense for him to have a device that would allow her to get in touch with him immediately, and for him to be able to send his parents and siblings texts and pictures.

Her older son, Finn, age 11, also owns a phone, but serious restrictions apply, and Irwin is able to control both her children’s phones from her own phone. For instance, Finn can’t use any apps on his phone from 8pm to 7am; he can’t download apps without digital permission from Irwin; she checks his Instagram and What’s App once a week; and he is only allowed to use it for 30 minutes a day on weekdays.

A phone for kids, controlled by parents

Frederik Albrechtsen, co-founder and chief executive of Monqi, understands the need to control what a child is up to on a smartphone, and invented a solution that can help. “Children should have access to the same type of technology that parents do,” he says, “but with a twist.” Monqi is the first smartphone made for kids between the ages of six and 12, but controlled by parents. It has an Android-based operating system that’s hard-wired into the device, and lets you monitor everything your child does through an app on your phone.

"As a parent, I face this constant begging for a phone all the time. My kids are nine and 12 now, but they were asking for one as early as age six. And as a parent, you don't want to just give in and hand over a phone and feel bad about it – not when you can make it a positive experience," explains Albrechtsen, a Danish entrepreneur from Spain, who used to live in Dubai a few years ago.

“Bans on cell phones in schools are not practical from a technological standpoint,” he adds. “As a parent, if I’m late to pick my child up, I would need to call her, or have her call me, but I don’t want her to be playing Angry Birds or downloading music at school. So some control is necessary.”

A Monqi-powered phone allows you to control and monitor everything it does from your own phone. You can switch off functionalities when your children are in school; you can make it so they can only receive a call from or make one to you; and you can chat with your child without needing to download WhatsApp. Monqi is currently being translated into Arabic and is to become available in the UAE this year.

Making parents more savvy

Until then, the onus remains on parents to be aware of how a smartphone can impact the development of a child’s brain, says psychiatrist Dr Rasha Bassim, from the Priory Wellbeing Centre. “Many studies have highlighted the dangerous psychological and medical effects of smartphone use, particularly among those using them for more than three hours a day. Findings demonstrate that the brain chemistry of young people addicted to smartphones and the internet may become imbalanced, leading to irritability, emotional distress, broken sleep patterns, isolation, and anxiety and depression,” she says.

In February, Sweden’s Prince Carl Philip and Princess Sofia released a candid internet-safety guide for parents, which addresses issues such as unwanted images and propositions, and decodes online-speak. In the same vein, making parents aware of what their children are doing on social media, how it can harm them and how to help them navigate the digital world is part of what Barry Lee Cummings does. The British dad living in Dubai co-founded the Beat the Cyber Bully initiative, providing education, awareness and training sessions to teachers, parents, students and even businesses, on cyberbullying, cybersafety, safer surfing and online reputation management.

Prince Carl Philip and Princess Sofia of Sweden published a guide for parents. Prinsparet / Instagram

Mothers and fathers, says Cummings, need to understand the digital world and the ever-changing technologies that come with it, so they can be a natural resource for their children. “Because of mobile devices, access to social media is literally at our children’s fingertips,” says Cummings. “We are giving our children these devices at a younger age almost without thinking. Two and three year olds have iPads in the pram; teenagers are walking into people because their eyes are glued on their phone screens; we as parents have one hand on our children and one hand on our phones. It’s become an integral part of life and we’re not even fully aware what we’re doing as adults, so how can we help children?”

Smartphones, he says, are both a blessing and a curse. It’s an incredible resource, but not if it’s used incorrectly, and parents need to understand what it means when their children are using SnapChat, or talking about Fortnite. “For parents to be able to have an open conversation with children, they need to have a level of understanding of their world. So maybe this means we should play Fortnite, try it out, and be able to set rules on its usage, so kids know they can’t pull the wool over our eyes.”

At the end of the day, it’s up to the discretion of the parents at what age to hand a child a smartphone. Bill Gates has said he didn't let any of his children get their own phone until they were 14, but the truth remains no two kids are the same, and there's no magic number. A kid's age is not as important as his or her levels of responsibility and maturity.

“Know that as a parent you are doing the best thing for them, whether that means not giving them a smartphone, limiting their access through app-restrictions and screen time, or setting clear boundaries regarding when the child should and shouldn’t be using one,” says Dharamshi. Since it is a choice, make it a smart one.

Keep them in check  

Boy using laptop on dark bedroom

Psychologist Nadia Brooker and psychiatrist Dr Rasha Bassim share some ideas on how to get children off their devices and limit dependency on smartphones and tablets.

• Always keep meal times phone-free, for parents as well. Remove the temptation altogether by leaving all electronic devices far from the table for the duration of

the meal.

• Encourage children to participate in activities away from the digital world. Have them join clubs, play a sport, learn a musical instrument, or simply organise regular family movie or games nights.

• Keep an eye on the clock. Introduce time limits on their screen time and make it a rule that no devices will be used for at least an hour before bedtime.

• The phone doesn’t need to go everywhere you go. Create media-free zones in the house, such as bedrooms.

• Ensure your little ones are not using their devices alone, while hidden away, but rather in the presence of others so you can subtly monitor what sites they’re visiting or apps they’re using.

• Don’t charge phones in the bedroom. The temptation to use it at night or first thing in the morning is too great.

• Invest in software that allows you to see what your child is watching and when. Limit them to just one social media account and make sure the correct privacy settings are in place. Be aware of what they are posting and whom they are communicating with.