Choosing to buy your child a mobile phone is a complex and difficult decision, writes Colm Fitzpatrick
In years gone past, choosing a Christmas present for your child rarely raised any moral conundrums or worries about what long-lasting effects it may have on their development.
A quick glance at history’s most popular presents from the 1950s-1980s attests to this – gifts most desired at Christmas ranged from Hot Wheels and Kerplunk to Barbie Dolls and Furbies.
But while these toys have a warm place in the memories of many adults throughout the world, presenting them to a child today could be perceived as an old-fashioned move.
Of course, this is mostly due to radical technological advancements in the last 20 years or so, which have assigned once-modern items like the Gameboy or Robosapien to the vintage dustbin. In their place are now mobile phones, laptops, drones, and a whole host of other products that the popular imagination couldn’t even envisage would exist today.
The benefits of these items have changed the world, revolutionising how we communicate with others and experience our lives.
But alongside these positive influences, technological advances have also come with a price. We hear more and more often about the insidious effects the internet can have on us, which includes addiction, a shutting off from the world, and an unhealthy obsession with some of the darker sites on the web.
All of this can be facilitated by a neat gadget, small enough to fit into your hand: the mobile phone.
The mobile phone has taken the globe by storm in the last few decades, so much so that not owning one today is a glaring anomaly. Indeed, according to Statista, a website the collates statistics and studies from more than 22,500 sources, the number of mobile phone users in the world is expected to pass the five billion mark by next year – that’s about 70% of the global population.
This isn’t a phenomenon restricted to adults either, children usually carry a mobile phone too but the age at which they should have one is still a hotly debated topic. To give a loose idea however, across Europe, about 46% of children aged nine to 16 own one.
These broad statistics create a problem every household has to deal with, especially at Christmas, where the yearning for a phone from an eager child becomes a never-ending, pervasive moan. But is it a simple decision to just follow the status-quo and ignore your gut feeling, or should you think twice about buying a phone?
For Prof. Eamonn Conway, of Limerick’s Mary Immaculate College, phones can drastically alter children’s attention span, creating a self-imposed prison from the outside world.
“Increasingly educators at every level, primary, secondary and third level, recognise the impact of the ‘digital distraction’ and the impact this has on young people’s ability to concentrate and to be present to the world around them. I teach a lot of teachers and teachers are continually coming up against this now. It’s a real challenge in schools and education,” he says.
“So, parents do need to give it very serious consideration. Maybe banning them or trying to restrict them isn’t the solution, but certainly trying to have quality family time, Pope Francis has spoken a lot about this, have quality family time that provides attractive alternatives to an online world that can be very diminishing and damaging actually.”
In this sense, a parent’s paramount responsibility when they finally give their child a phone is to make sure it doesn’t preoccupy their lives and distract them from their needs or goals. But despite all the parenting advice imaginable, it doesn’t solve the niggling question of what age your child should be given one. What exactly is the magic number?
There’s been discussion aplenty about this issue in the past 10 years or so, but one notable voice worth listening to in the Irish world is that of UCD academic Dr Mary Aiken. The cyberpsychologist, who specialises in the impact of technology on human behaviour, argues that children under about the age of 14 should not have a smartphone.
It’s important, she says, to draw a distinction between the mobile phone and the smartphone; the former of which has basic functions while the latter gives the ability to access the online world. While it would be acceptable to give your eight-year-old child a ‘dummy’ phone, Dr Aiken stresses that giving a child of the same age a smartphone would be irresponsible.
“Now certainly they could have a dumb phone, like a flip-up Nokia or whatever when they’re eight or nine so their parents can text or call them or so that they can reach out to their parents during that period, but the smartphone is very specific,” she says.
“If you give a child a dumb phone – there’s no internet connection, there’s no apps and blue lights from the screen and there’s no camera – then immediately you’ve eliminated a whole range of problems that can be associated with teenage development.”
And this is really where her protective stance emerges from – that activities associated with smartphones can be corrosive to a child’s development, altering them emotionally, physically and cognitively in unexpected ways.
“We can look at an increase in anxiety and depression with young people – a 70% increase over the last 20 years. We’ve seen an increase in Ireland with eating disorders; we’ve seen increases in cyberbullying; we’ve seen increases in negative behaviours associated with the use of smartphones” she explains.
One of these dangerous behaviours, she says, is that of young people checking their mobile devices in the middle of the night, which interferes with their sleep cycle, ultimately leaving them consistently exhausted. This practice will inevitably have a destructive effect on their mental health.
“The one factor I would drill it back to is sleep deprivation. So what we’re seeing is young people are not getting the proper amount of sleep that they require…they’re on their devices before they go to sleep, and therefore that’s interfering with their ability to go to sleep. In one study three out of five kids were waking up during the night to check in on cyberspace,” she says, noting that looking at the world with sleep-deprived eyes makes it seem like “a very bleak place”.
Dr Aiken’s advice is certainly worth heeding, especially given that we are in a period where we have very little research that can actually provide an evidence-based policy in the area of how children engage with technology. With the absence of clear scientific recommendations of how often and when children should be using smartphones, a conservative stance on the topic is probably for the best.
“My conservative approach is based around, you know people like Bill Gates who has said they would not give a smartphone to a child under the age of 14 and it’s an arbitrary age because in psychology we don’t deal with definitive hard ages. You don’t suddenly become mature at 14, but it serves as a pointer to parents that there is an issue about developmental maturity at stake here.”
In the same way the legal prohibition of drinking alcohol stands at 18 with some wiggle-room for parents, Dr Aiken says our approach to smartphone use should follow the same model.
“That serves as a guideline for parents to say, ‘Well this is what the State recommends’, but that doesn’t stop a parent deciding they’re going to have a pint of beer with their son at 17. It’s a discretionary decision for parents to make in terms of parenting, but it certainly points to the fact that parents shouldn’t be encouraging their children to drink at 13 or 14 – it’s a recommendation,” she says.
This is not to argue, Dr Aiken adds, that children can’t use technology is an appropriate way, but it’s vital to realise that the smartphone is a “very complex piece of technology” and should only be given to a child who is “mature enough deal with it”. Good luck explaining that to your child at Christmas!
Dr Mary Aiken is author of The Cyber Effect which explores how cyberspace is changing the way we think, feel and behave.