Thursday, April 20, 2017

The mobile phone dilemma

Note: This article is an adapted version of the original, which was written for and appeared on Digital News Asia. Note too that this is a rather long piece. However, if you'd like to find out more about the dilemma we're facing regarding mobile phones, read on! :)

Oh yes, we’re settling into Primary One quite comfortably. EV looks like she has made the transition rather smoothly, taking the longer hours and bigger classes in her stride. I must proclaim - I’m so proud of her!!

Her primary school has a ‘no mobile phone’ policy, and they do encourage the students to stick to it. I’m glad for the school’s position, though I do know of some parents who allow their young kids, even those in lower primary, to bring mobile phones to school. Already, I have heard of at least one case where the student lost the phone.

EV and I have spoken about this too. She knows that she is still too young to handle a mobile phone, and she is aware of the dangers of carrying such an expensive item around. Yes, I’m glad that she has not requested for a mobile phone of her own, because I think that without the phone, she will be able to discover more of the world around her.

Having grown up experiencing the lack of the wonders of the World Wide Web, I can confidently say that I have been lucky to have enjoyed the joys that this lack brings. My generation climbed drains and went in search of insects, exploring the great outdoors in the most messy way possible. We played electronic games too, but these were simple, two-dimensional ones that still keep us feeling nostalgic for them. 

Our way of communication was basic. I remember being mesmerised by the rotary dial telephone as a child, watching the dial finish its round before turning the next number again. It trained our patience. Then the keypad telephone came about, and the ability to do call waiting and three-way conference call with three of my friends was just so cool, then. I spent the whole night chatting, much to the frustration of my parents.

The first affordable mobile phone was a zone phone which, as the name suggests, allowed one to use it only in a particular area. By that time, I was well into adulthood, and I could decide to get one for myself.

My generation didn’t have mobile phones till we were much older.

Today’s generation, however, is the digital generation. A generation that is growing up with increasing mobility, advanced technology, touch screens, the ease that Internet brings and, of course, social media.

Unlike parents of yonder days, today’s parents face two ubiquitous questions - should they allow their children to own mobile phones? If so, how old should a child be?

As parents of young children, one who has just entered formal education this year, my husband and me are well aware of the situation, and the difficulty we will face in making a decision. And we are aware that it will be just a matter of time before our older child starts to feel the peer pressure, and ask us for a mobile phone. Fortunately, we can use the school’s policy to put any such requests off, but we do know that it is something we have to address. It is not a matter of whether we will address it, but when.

Like many like-minded parents, we have deliberated over the pros and cons of giving our children mobile phones, and also at what age we should do so. We have not come to an agreement. Why not?

Mobile phone ownership should be as late as possible

Better eye health
One of the key reasons I limit my kids’ screen time to one hour per day, whether it is the TV or mobile phone or tablet, is because of their eyes. Research has shown that too much screen time can cause digital eye strain and potentially increase the chances of myopia. More than that, how the kids sit during their screen time is also important as it can affect their spines and postures in the long run. There is also the possibility of obesity if they sit for long periods of time engaged with the screen. As their parent, it is my duty to protect their health, guide them in understanding the reasons for limiting screen time (which directly means less time to watch their favourite cartoons), and teach them to take care of their own health.

Decrease distraction, increase focus 
While the research into the long term effects of extended amounts of screen time on children’s development may not be extensive, there is some indication that there is a relation between the two. And I’m not taking any chances. Enough research has been done to show that exposure to screen-based activities do have an effect on brain chemistry; it increases dopamine levels and makes the user want more. Already in 1998, research demonstrated a conclusive link between video games and higher dopamine levels. 

Just look at us adults now. Mobile devices have a powerful effect on us. They have the ability to distract us from other more important things, simply because we want more of them. The good thing is that we’ve lived in an era without mobile devices, so it is easier for us to break away.

The same cannot be said for kids who grow up surrounded by mobile devices. It is hard to pry them away from the mobile phones. Mobile phones become a constant distraction that they depend on, beating all other distractions that may be around the kids. 

During the rare times when my kids get to play mobile devices, I’ve noticed that they are very focused, or seem to be. Some might argue that this proves that mobile phones, and screens, do not distract kids; in fact, they help develop a child’s focus. 

However, the irony of it is that the child is only focused on what’s happening on the screen. This does not necessarily translate to having the ability to focus on other activities. An article by The New York Times has even suggested that too much screen time may be linked to attention deficit disorder.   

As an educator, I’ve seen young children totally focused on their mobile phones, but absolutely oblivious to whatever is happening around them. I’ve seen them eagerly pick up their phones to play games and whatnot, but totally unable to focus on their work. The mobile phone becomes a distraction from other activities that young children should be engaged in at their age, like going outdoors. 

So to manage that distraction, we parents have to control exposure to such devices when the kids are young, and to delay individual ownership as long as possible. 

Encourage face-to-face interaction
A recent research by the University of California showed that kids who have little access to technology were better at reading their friends’ facial and non-verbal emotional cues than those who used mobile devices more regularly. The latter group had less face-to-face interaction, and hence did not display the necessary skills to read human emotions. 

It is clear to parents what this means: for a young kid learn human interaction, face-to-face time is crucial. Mobile devices rob the kids of that, and as a result, could have a detrimental effect on their ability to communicate when they grow up. For me, I want my kids to be comfortable communicating face-to-face and from behind the screen, so managing their screen time is the way to go.

Develop the ability to be ‘alone’
Very often, I’ve seen kids in school take out their mobile devices the moment they are out from lessons, or the moment they are alone. They cannot be without their mobile devices. This over-reliance is worrying, and could develop into an addiction that affects their grades. 

In fact, in 2013, the American Psychiatric Association had listed ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’ to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5®) and recommended further research. Although this does not cover the general use of Internet or social media, the fact that Internet gaming, which many people are engaged in thanks to the prevalence of apps on mobile devices, is being recognised as a possible mental disorder and addiction shows that the medical professionals are increasingly worried about the potential effects mobile devices have on our society. It is our view that it will be a matter of time before the effect of general internet and social media use on mental health will be recognised.

Recognising this trend, and having seen for myself the difficulty young children have in disengaging themselves from mobile devices to be truly alone, I’m even more certain in delaying my kids’ mobile phone ownership for as long as possible. They need to learn not to depend on mobile devices to keep themselves busy, and to be able to search out other activities such as reading to broaden their minds.

Privacy & cyberbullying
I want to protect my kids’ privacy. I don’t want them to foolishly post something online that they would later regret. I want to protect them from being bullied in cyberspace. 
Well, why don’t I teach them not to reveal their personal data online, teach them to think before they post, teach them how to spot if someone is bullying them online and teach them not to spread rumours or gossip about their friends. That would be the most logical way to approach this, my husband would say. After all, how can we stop them from not owning a mobile phone, in today’s world?

Sure, I agree, it’s important to educate my kids about this online form of abuse as they will be exposed to such realities sooner or later. However, like any other parent, I would like to protect them from these realities for as long as possible. Besides, once they go online, they may not be willing to share their activities honestly. So again, I think mobile phone ownership should be as late as possible. Never, if I can have it my way.

It’s ok to own a mobile phone. They have to sooner or later anyway
This is pretty much my husband’s position. Health and focus issues aside, he feels there are ways to manage the children when they own mobile devices, when they come of age, whatever that age is. In many ways, I do see the rationale of his points. 

Use as a support
In times of need, kids with mobile phones can quickly reach call out for help, get transport home, do a quick search to learn a new fact, and even pay for meals. It is about the use of a device to support one’s daily activities in life and not be zombified by it. It is about balancing the usage, knowing what and when a mobile device should be used for. By educating kids about this, the mobile phone can actually be a very useful support tool. 

Use as a tracking device
Just the other day, when we were having one of our several discussions over this, my husband highlighted that his friend used the mobile phone to track his daughter, and caught his daughter lying about her whereabouts. Instead of being home, as she claimed she was, the daughter was hanging out at a fast food restaurant. 

His view is that, the mobile phone brings with it many technologies which allow parents to manage their children, including using it as a tracking device. It ensures their safety, and if they get caught lying about their whereabouts, then it becomes a lesson about being responsible and truthful to earn the trust of your loved ones. If they want parents to trust them with the privacy they deserve, then they need to work towards earning it.

Use a parental app
Another technology is parental apps, which parents can use to monitor all incoming messages, photos, internet usage, social media posts and so on, and protect the kids’ privacy.
Living in a world where kids are digital natives, parents are left with no choice but to adapt and assimilate, and to find ways to manage. 

My husband and I are still undecided about whether to give our kids mobile phones, and when we should do it. At the moment, we feel they are both too young to own one, but we are aware that the situation will change. They may very soon be surrounded by peers who own mobile phones, and may end up being the only ones who don’t. 

I know that it’s just a matter of time before they remind me daily that ‘I’m the only one without a smartphone. All my friends own one, why can’t I?’

If I do decide to give my children mobile phones, that decision will hinge very much on their maturity level and responsibility. Of course, ownership comes with responsibilities and conditions such as signing a contract to not go over the set number of messages and call time and having a parental app installed to monitor usage.

It is only through this way that parents in a technologically advanced world can protect their children.
However, till I have to make that decision, I’m not afraid to be a dinosaur, and delay getting my kids mobile phones for as long as possible, even if they don’t like me for it.


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