To give or not to give! This is perhaps one of the biggest questions the 21st Century parents have to deal with the moment they start raising children. When should they allow, let alone acquire mobile phones for kids? None is particularly sure about the right time, or if at all they should purchase these shiny little pieces in the first place.

But again, does the question even make sense? How to does one opt for a low tech existence and environment, in an otherwise high tech environment? The current Generation Alpha and Z kids are born straight into technology the moment they pop out of the womb, and it is all they are made to know.

At birth, they come face to face with smartphone and tablet flashes even before they notice their mothers! When finally their eyes start making sense of what they see, they notice with excitement that everyone around them is busy on mobile phones. When the chance presents itself, they also place the phones next to their ears or swipe happily through video clips. The smile on their faces is captivating and pleasing to us. As much as we want to grab the phones away from them, somehow we relent. From then on, it is all they know and the interaction gradually molds into a  permanent lifestyle.

The Stats!

In a 2019 report by Common Sense Media, 53% of kids in the US alone own smartphones by the time they are 11. The number goes up to 69% when they are 12. And not to forget the little ones, a whopping 19% of 8-year-olds now own personal mobile phones.

There is a good reason why children are so excited about smartphones – the love for videos on YouTube. The same report says this about the love for videos:

Since 2015, the percentage of young people who say they watch online videos “every day” has doubled, to 56% from 24% among 8- to 12-year-olds, and to 69% from 34% among 13- to 18-year-olds. For tweens, it is the media activity they enjoy the most, with 67% saying they enjoy it “a lot,” up from 46% in 2015, when it ranked fifth in enjoyment. Time spent watching online videos also increased from 25 to 56 minutes a day among tweens, and from 35 to 59 minutes a day among teens on average. 

Tweens, Teens, and Phones

Notwithstanding which side of the debate is agreeable, the fact is, children in the 21st Century simply cannot do without smartphones and the whole array of technology devices.

The interaction they have with mobile devices has curated a generation that suits best the digital native cohort. They learn to interact with these and other technology forms more than they do everyone else around them. The attachment will not stop unless and perhaps one day, a calamitous solar event strikes the universe to render technology advancement invalid. Just kidding!

Still, how on earth does anyone tell these adventurous fellows to stay off these shiny little devices?

It is next to impossible to answer this because parents willingly introduce smartphones to kids for selfish and of course good reasons. The status and environment where children are raised also matter.

How Privilege and Environment Affect Our Choices!

Children raised in urban settings will most likely find it hard to evade the intrusion of technology compared to their counterparts in rural settings. Technology devices are commonplace in urban settings just as they are scarce in rural settings, especially in the less developed world.

Likewise, children born in low-income families may not easily afford mobile phones compared to their wealthy counterparts. But again, children from low-income families who live in densely populated urban areas will get exposed to technology with or without the consent of parents.

The challenge, therefore, is bigger for children of the wealthy and those raised up in urban settings.

To take a leaf from the privileged, according to Business Insider,

1. Bill and Melinda Gates

Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda did not permit their children to have cellphones until the age of 14.

2. Sundar Pichai

Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s 11-year-old son doesn’t own a cell phone — and the TV can only be accessed with “activation energy.”

3. Steve Jobs(RIP)

In Steve Jobs’ household, dinnertime was reserved for face-to-face conversation with his children — meaning no iPads or iPhones in sight.

4. Satya Nadella

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and his wife Anu carefully negotiate what sites their children are allowed to go on, and for how long.

5. Alexis Ohanian and Serena Williams

Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian and tennis icon Serena Williams say they plan on limiting their daughter’s screen time as she gets older.

Should We Blame Us?

Instead of saying NO to a child who is over-indulging in a computer game, we promise them more screen time if only they do dishes and clean the house. And again instead of allowing them to venture outside for the much needed physical activity, we happily shove phones and computers in their faces to keep them busy. What a better way to ensure their safety than exposing them to the unknown challenges outdoor!

The routine has become commonplace and the preferred mode of child control, a kind of strict parenting.

While it is true strict parenting exists, in those that truly want to curb the tech invasion and progression, it is also questionable how achievable the approach is. It is like going to war with the ubiquitous nature of these devices at home. They are available with the older siblings, neighbors, peers, friends, etc. The older folks feel indebted to the new member in the family, whose interest in tech is hard to ignore.

Practically, we cannot hide smartphones from them. Maybe if we decide to keep the devices in the pocket. But alas! health experts tell us not to, due to the dangers caused by mobile phone proximity to sensitive body organs.

Do we lock them in the drawers? Of course, the meaning of mobile will cease to exist, because we may not even hear when our phones ring. This will interfere with our ability to communicate.

Ultimately, mobile phones have to stay in the open where the kids will readily access and use them!

Probably what parents and kids have to do is learn to live with this reality. In any case, when kids learn to use these devices early in life, they tend to outgrow them faster than their old counterparts. Kids need these tools as much as parents need them.

They need to,

  • make phone calls to parents, siblings, and friends
  • play games
  • master tech-related knowledge early enough so as not to be left behind
  • watch video clips on YouTube

What Parents Can Do

1. Make Mobile Phones for Kids Safe to Use

At the end of the day, it is all about implementing safer usability of mobile phones for kids to safeguard their health and general well-being.

Fundamental guidelines to fend off the dangers that come with tech can go a long way to ensure they walk the tech road safely until adulthood. Parents should be focusing on controlling and neutralizing the bad side effects instead of investing energy on when they should acquire these devices.

Children need to be made aware that electromagnetic energy from cell phones is harmful and not safe if used extensively.

Parents should talk to children about the technology side effects listed below:

  • Cell phones should not be placed close to the body, in the pocket or in bed to stay clear of electromagnetic energy fields (EMF) emissions
  • Possible EMF-related side effects may include cancer, ADHD, and obesity
  • The blue light emitted by electronic devices is known to interfere with sleep quality especially if tech engagement is done continuously before bedtime
  • Their mental development is affected with extended cell phone use since they develop a tendency to refer to technology other than their brains to solve mental tasks
  • The Atlantic reported in an article that young learners depression levels increase by 27% because of too much use of social media
  • Too much screen time will affect their posture when they bend their backs way too often
  • Too much screen time makes them addicts of some kind, just like smoking and alcohol addictions

2. Enforce a Balance of Activities

Parental responsibility includes actively protecting things that matter most in the lives of children. These include availing them sufficient playtime to keep them physically active. Extended physical playtime outdoors makes their bones stronger, sharpens their minds and makes them creative.

Unstructured playtime is more valuable for a young child’s developing brain than is electronic media. Children younger than age 2 are more likely to learn and remember information from a live presentation than they are from a video.

Screen time and children

Physical activity outdoors also makes children sleep better at night. After an active period during the day, they become mentally wired to sleep early and sufficiently.

Finally, children should also not use technology at the expense of homework, and domestic chores, which are crucial in preparing them for a productive life and teaching them real-life skills.

The Takeaway!

When all the precautions noted above are put in place, children will find less time to engage with screen time, and yet more time to accomplish useful activities at home. In the short and long run, the matter of age becomes somewhat a none issue. Of course, your 1-year-old child will not need to own a smartphone unless you choose to enforce it, but the 10-year-old will not mind owning one. Still, the 10-year-old is still young enough to follow the rules you put in place, that is if you choose to become an active parent.