The smartphone, nowadays, has become such a common piece of technology that it is being connected with our identity. Within the past 20 years, smartphone technology has evolved at an increasingly faster rate, opening up more and more possibilities for us, the users.
From family to school, the smartphone has become a staple of communication, learning, entertainment, and socialization. But how early can your kids be exposed to smartphones in a responsible manner?
Before we can attempt to answer this, let’s look first at a few key benefits of smartphone usage.
Easily one of the main socializing sources for kids with smartphones is the opportunities for contact with peers – texting, use of social media, and (less likely) actually talking on the phone.
“While not all of these kids may live in your neighborhood, internet friendships can help your child learn how to create ties with others and foster social connections that may last far beyond their childhood.” Read more here.
Curiosity is one of the more important traits of a child which should be nurtured as early as possible and throughout their lives. Teaching them from an early age how to use a smartphone’s access to limitless knowledge is an investment that will pay off many times over in the future. Access to knowledge sources such as Google searches, Wikipedia, Wolfram Alpha, STEMulator, and many more are a great way to develop your child’s learning abilities.
Plus, since the pandemic arrived, online learning, in Switzerland at least, has gained significant popularity with sources such as Little Scientists and TechSpark Academy.
Entertainment – What kid doesn’t want to spend hours watching people do silly things on YouTube? Or how many dances can they name off of TikTok? Moreover streaming sources such as Netflix, Disney +, Hulu, and others have children movies and shows.
Or, if role-playing is in their hearts, online sources such as NeverEnding can prove to be an enriching addition. Some board and table-top games also have their online versions, with Dungeons and Dragons being one of the most popular table-top sources of entertainment in the world.
Last, but not least, smartphones can be used as emergency contact points. Be it through various apps, or through simply calling emergency numbers, you can either keep track of your kid’s location through GPS tracking, or your child can use emergency apps in those unimaginable cases. Safety is often at the core of smartphones’ design, for instance, the iPhone has Emergency SOS features. Additionally, with more recent technology advancements, smartwatches can be used to track health indicators such as heart rate, oxygen saturation, and body temperature; keeping track of these features on your smartphone may prove valuable for your doctor.
It all sounds amazing at this point, but this is not all that needs to be considered for a child to own a smartphone. Next, let’s discuss some elements of maturity and responsibility.
How responsible do you think your children are? It is important to evaluate their behavior with respect to your concerns. Do they answer your calls or messages? Do they call you back or reply? More importantly, are they aware of the value of their smartphone? If your children tend to break things often, or not appreciate their value, teach it to them. You may either test the waters with some more affordable smartphone models, from which they can be upgraded if they are respectful enough of the technology in their hands.
Will they be able to keep their phone safe, or are you worried it will be ruined very early on? If they bring it to school, do you trust them to follow the school rules related to smartphones?
Moreover, on the social aspect, do you trust your children to use texting, photo-taking, and calling features in an appropriate manner? Cyberbullying is an important concern for any parent and can create significant damage to young children’s’ self-esteem.
Challenges of smartphone usage
The previous topic leads directly to the following challenges which we want to bring up.
Common concerns of kids’ smartphone usage are significant screen time, digital addiction, cyberbullying risks, various health issues, exposure to nudity and violence, and more.
“Too much screen time can contribute to many negative effects such as obesity, sleep problems, behavior problems, education problems, and increased violence.”
PandaSecurity’s valuable study on the relationship between children and smartphones brings up some important elements.
In children aged 4-6, there is a risk of digital screens overstimulating them, producing adrenaline and dopamine thus inducing an addictive reward loop. One way to avoid it is to introduce your child to a phone with no internet access and enforce/control screen time limit.
In the next bracket, ages 7-11, kids are more sensitive to sources idealizing over-reliance and peer validation, which can dangerously lead to digital bullying. One way of countering this is to open honest and judgment-free discussions with your children on the dangers of smartphones, as well as potentially setting up parental controls on the devices.
From ages 12-14 experts say that exposure to heavy smartphone usage may inhibit their development of problem-solving, critical thinking, and impulse control. This age range is when maturity and responsibility are stronger impact factors and smartphone ownership should be judged accordingly.
In high school (ages 15-18) various factors (prefrontal cortex still in development and hormonal imbalances) make kids behave in an unpredictable manner. “Technology in this mix can be a cause for concern, especially when smartphones provide unsupervised Internet access. It’s important that parents teach and model good smartphone habits that their high schoolers can pick up on.”
What can you do?
According to Dr. Dwight DeWerth-Pallmeyer, smartphone usage can lead to shortened attention spans, less time outside, anxiety, and poorer communication skills. How can these be prevented?
One way is to introduce family no-phone zones. For instance, during dinner, the smartphone should not exist at the table. At the end of a working day, it is a moment of peace where the family should communicate face to face with each other. Talk about your day, your feelings, share stories, share opinions, sing, or even play pranks!
In the bedroom, the strong light from the screen interrupts the child’s sleep cycle by keeping him awake. Poor sleep can affect school performance, weight, and well-being. Read more here. Therefore, it is recommended to keep smartphone exposure at a minimum before bed. While driving teenagers should be encouraged to not use the phone while driving. Any amount of distraction can be hazardous on the road, leading to potentially dangerous accidents. Before you give your kids a phone, it’s a good idea to talk about how much time they should spend on it and why it’s important to disconnect from it every once in a while. This digital discipline is a powerful tool required in modern times with so much technology surrounding any and every aspect of our lives.
With the help of a smartphone, while it is connected to the internet, parents can check their children’s location at any moment. This feature reduces the parents’ concern and provides some peace of mind. Adding to this some activity trackers on your kids’ phone can lead to early prevention of bullying, and protection from sexual predators.
Spending too much time with their eyes fixated on a small screen can be harmful. Why not give their eyes a rest and introduce them to audiobooks? There are numerous collections of free audiobooks online. For example, Open Culture has a satisfying selection of education resources and more in audiobook format. And on a related note, the humble podcast is a fantastic alternative to listening if audiobooks are not of interest. There are podcasts on any topic, from movie culture to string theory. Find more here.
Taking education a bit further, there are numerous sources online (a google search away) accessible through their smartphones which lead to learning through games, learning foreign languages with the help of various apps, getting the hang of programming, photography, cooking recipes, DIY instructions, and much much more!
Furthermore, considering our current global situation, smartphones have proven to be an essential tool in keeping contact with family, loved ones, friends, and neighbors; in this way children can still develop socializing and empathetic skills.
Smartphones are one of the most useful pieces of technology to be developed in the past decades. They grant access to the Internet’s wealth of information, as they allow exposure to numerous risks. Smartphones evolve at a rapid pace, modern ones even having flexible screens. Your children are highly sensitive to their effects, and they must learn how to respect the technology in their hands, as well as how to develop personal digital discipline.