At what age is your child emotionally and mentally ready to have their own smartphone? We ask the experts…

Welcome to the year 2018, where a child’s rite of passage into early teenhood is no longer a tube of pimple cream, but in fact a bright and shiny phone. Indeed, kids as young as 8 years old today are cheekily asking their parents if they can have a smartphone, leaving mums and dads around the world scratching their heads, wondering if they should get their kids one.

The upside to giving your child a smartphone is the ability to have instant access to them, which some parents say is a great way to stay in touch and keep an eye on them. However, it also means unlimited access to the Internet and the many dangers that come with it.

Tech guru Bill Gates recently revealed that he only allowed his kids to have a smartphone at the age of 14, because he felt that they needed to be old enough to demonstrate that they could exercise restraint and understand the value of face-to-face communication.

“He isn’t the only one with a low-tech household,” says Walter Lim, director and editor of Cooler Insights, a digital and content marketing agency, and member of the Media Literacy Council. “Steve Jobs, Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired magazine, and Evan Williams, the founder of Blogger, Twitter and Medium, all have low-tech households.”

So, what made these techies decide to hold off on exposing their kids to technology too soon? “Smartphones are like cocaine or digital crack. Together with their apps, especially social networking platforms, they are designed to excite, entice and enchant users, bringing them on infinite loops of usage,” says Lim

“I’ve seen so many families where the kid has the latest and most advanced smartphone. They spend so much time lavishing love and attention on their new acquisition that they virtually ignore the rest of the household.”

Hand a mobile phone over to your child too soon and it might cause more harm than good. Constantly being on a digital device can hamper your child’s social and motor skills, affect their eye sight, and even distract them from their studies. So, when is the right time to give your child a smartphone? And should age be the only determining factor?

“I'm not sure if there is a ‘right age’,” says Susan Ng, producer-presenter at 938NOW, Mediacorp and a member of the Media Literacy Council. “I feel the child must be ready and mature enough to understand what it means to own a smartphone. And parents have the last say on the matter.”

To decide, Ng says you first need to answer the golden question: Why does my child need to have a smartphone? “If it's just to stay in touch, be part of the class or school WhatsApp group, and not to play games… maybe a basic 3G phone might suffice,” adds Ng.

Giving a phone to your child is as serious as handing over your car keys to your teenager. You’re worried they’re not ready, might misuse it, get into trouble or worse yet, let it run their lives. However, unlike driving, there’s no legal guideline for a parent to decide if their tween or teen is ready to own a smartphone. So, if you’re currently thinking about giving your child a phone, here are some rules you should follow.

Picking a smartphone

Consider your financial and budget constraints before making a decision and know that your child will still benefit from a mobile phone even if it’s not the latest gadget. In fact, it’s better to give your kid an older and less powerful mobile phone, says Lim.

“I’ve seen so many families where the kid has the latest and most advanced smartphone models relative to their parents. They end up spending so much time lavishing their love and attention on their new acquisition that they virtually ignore the rest of the household,” he adds.

When it comes to pre-paid or post-paid, it depends on your preference, but what’s more important is to set a cap on the amount of data used per month, says Lim.

Setting ground rules on phone usage

This is one conversation you should be having even before handing over a mobile phone to your child. Guidelines, rules on device use, consequences if these rules are breached, and all concerns need to be talked through early on before deciding if your child should own a smartphone. “This way both parties are clear on expectations and understand each other, which will help prevent conflict,” points out Ng. “I had a guest on my talk show who did this, and even came up with a ‘contract’ which was signed by the parents and child.” Part of the ground rules should also cover:

• How many hours a day can your child use his phone. Lim says two to three hours is reasonable and to think about limiting data and cap usage during the times when you’re not around to supervise. Also, sharing the data plan with your child is a good way to monitor their usage.

• When the phone can be used at home. For example, tell them there should be no usage during mealtimes and after a specific time in the evenings, e.g. 9pm.

• Agree on whether random spot checks are allowed. If the parent wants to do it, the child has to be comfortable with it.

• Agree that if any of the ground rules are broken, parents have the right to take the phone back until a time they see fit to return it.

Talk about cyber security

“This should be an ongoing and continuous effort,” says Lim. “Alert children on ‘dangerous’ apps that could possibly reveal too much information about themselves.” Besides that, here are a few more best practices to follow:

• Avoid checking in to locations, especially those that are immediately identifiable like school or home.

• Avoid taking selfies or photos that have personally identifiable information, like their names, school badges, home address, NRICs, passports and car plate numbers.

• Manage your privacy levels on your apps, especially on social media. Set visibility to “Friends only” or “Private”.

Do not meet anybody you’ve not met or interacted with in person. If you decide to meet this person, always bring a friend or two along.

• Be open about your whereabouts and share what you do online. If they feel someone is being nasty to them online, encourage them to talk about it openly. Also, look out for signs of cyberbullying, such as being withdrawn or anti-social.

“I believe in the reverse pyramid approach to digital parenting, start as strict as possible, and slowly loosen up later.”

Teach them how to spot fake news

Another big topic that is timely and must be covered. Sounds intimidating, but Lim has come up with an easy way to break it down for kids, and even adults, using the acronym REACT:

* Reflect Think about the piece of news you’ve read. Does it seem right or is there something unusual about it?
* Emotions Was the piece written in an emotionally stirring manner? Most regular and trusted news sources are careful about using overly emotional language to get their point across.
* Agenda Check the background of the author or organisation. Are they politically linked in? Is there a possible reason for them to craft the piece?
* Check the following:

1. URL of the website: Does it appear to spoof or mimic another high authority website?

2. Date of the website: When was the website published?

3. Language: Is it professionally written by journalists?

4. Images: Are the images original or ripped off from another website? Google reverse image search to find out.

* Trustworthiness Read through the rest of the articles on the website or watch their videos. Do they consistently appear to follow a certain pattern? Is it trustworthy or dodgy?

Install parent control apps

“This depends on the level of trust between parent and child,” notes Lim, who has a 14-year-old son Ethan. “Personally, I’ve not done so with my kid as he knows that we are able to track his usage and may occasionally check in with him on what he is doing on his phone.” However, if you choose to use such apps, start from day one, advises Lim. “I believe in the reverse pyramid approach to digital parenting, start as strict as possible, and slowly loosen up later,” adds Lim.

Be a good role model

Let’s face it, parents are often the worst culprits when it comes to smartphone misuse. So, if we don’t walk the talk, our kids are not going to either. Lim shares some ground rules we can all follow to set a good example for our kids:

• Avoid using a smartphone when talking to another person.

• Adopt a strict “no phones in the bedroom” policy.

• Limit use of smartphones for entertainment or “time killing” purposes. Instead, pick up a book and read!

• Put in place a no-smartphone meal policy. Use the opportunity to talk to your child and catch up with each other.

• Appoint your child as the “smartphone police”, so that he or she can also help you manage your smartphone use. By pointing out your mistakes they will also learn along the way.

Photos: iStock and Media Literacy Council

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