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What to do if your teenage child wants a smartphone

Does your child want a smartphone? Here’s what you need to know before you decide to invest in one

Should you give your children smartphones of their own? There are no easy answers but this guide can help.
Should you give your children smartphones of their own? There are no easy answers but this guide can help. (Unsplash)

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My daughter will turn 13 in a few months, and she now wants what almost every child her age asks for - a smartphone. Like most families today, we don’t have a landline so what if our child wants to get in touch with us during an emergency?

When I read up about entrusting a child with a phone, I learned that the first mistake that parents make is that they buy the phone and then try to teach their children how to use it or show them how not to misuse or overuse it. When you learn how to drive a car, you sign up for a class and test for a license to use the car. When you get a phone, on the other hand, it comes with no guidance or lessons and certainly no license but like driving, it poses many risks if not used safely.

When Covid-19 hit us and online schooling took over for the sake of business continuity, I saw that parents gave their children a smartphone to take their online classes at home. In fact, according to a global study by McAfee Corp, smartphone usage at the age of 10-14 is at 83% in India and Indian children are among the youngest to get smartphones. The report also talked about our children experiencing the highest online risk exposure.

Should you give your children smartphones of their own? There are no easy answers but here’s what you need to keep in mind.

Smartphone or a feature phone? Don’t rule out the latter

What is the right age to give a child a phone? Raghu Pandey is the Founder of iMature Edtech, India’s first organization in the niche domain of digital citizenship and Internet maturity education. Pandey believes that before we answer this question, we must first differentiate between a smartphone and an old fashioned portable feature phone. “Smartphones are basically Internet enabled computers with small screens, bundled with mobile telephone capabilities,” he says. “Ideally, if the family can afford it, then the child must get a desktop or laptop computer with Internet connection at around 10 years of age. A large sized device like a laptop or desktop enforces a kind of discipline of place and posture among users. A smartphone can be used in the bed, in the toilet, at the dining table, and in any every posture. That leads to overuse!”

If a child needs to be in touch with parents or caregivers, Pandey recommends a normal feature-phone to call and text.

Signs to check if your child is ready to own a phone

How do you know if your child is ready to own a smartphone and take responsibility for it? Bengaluru-based parent, Nithya Sankari, whose child is unschooled, says that she gave her son a smartphone when he was 10 because he knew how to use it responsibly. “He needed it for his online drumming classes,” she says. “We never made a big deal out of it. As a child who is unschooled, we give him as much freedom as possible and we have a lot of open communication about phone usage at home.”

When it comes to readiness to own and operate a smartphone, it is also about developmental readiness. Do your children display the capability for more complex thought processes, social awareness, and understanding of technology? Can they do some amount of long-term thinking? Do they understand what is right and wrong, and identify boundaries and limits? Do they lose things in school or can they take care of their possessions?

Pandey adds, “I’d also check if they have clarity of purpose of various apps and platforms and a high level of awareness about the external online threats in the form of cyber criminals, hackers, and cyber bullies, and internal risks in terms of addiction, online reputation risks, and mental health issues.”

Establish rules of engagement

If you do decide to get that smartphone after all, sit with your child and work out some essential ground rules. Set clear boundaries in terms of how much time they will spend on the phone and when the phone is off-limits. What are the times during the day when you think they should not use the phone? What about school rules when it comes to phone usage? What should be the consequence if you lose your phone? A few parents I know hand over their children’s smartphones to their homeroom or class teachers, who give the phones to the children only when they need to get in touch with the parents.

Remember I spoke about having a license to drive a car? Digital Citizenship and Internet Maturity (DCIM) is like a ‘license’ to use the Internet. Pandey’s company, iMature Edtech, even offers important individual and collaborative courses to prepare children to use digital devices with care.

The most important lesson I learned though is that like most adults on this planet, I am in a serious relationship with my phone but if I want my child to use her smartphone intelligently, I must role model its usage in a healthier way.

Shweta Sharan is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

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