When should you give your child a smartphone?

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It is a blessing in disguise that Pokémon Go only works on smartphones running Android version 4.4 or later. That’s because my 11-year-old daughter’s phone – a Xiaomi Redmi – runs on Android 4.3.

Being unable to play Pokémon Go is not a bad thing, because it means K, my daughter, won’t spend all her time filling up on her Pokéballs and waiting for rare legendary Pokémon to appear. Unlike her elder sister who is more disciplined, I often worry about K who tends to get carried away playing video games, reading fan fiction novels, chatting with friends and watching YouTube videos. Not only do these activities take up her free time, I worry that excessive screen time will make her already poor eyesight deteriorate further.

I used to read fantasy novels and watch copious amounts of television in my free time when I was her age, but these days the endless entertainment options offered by smartphones threaten to take over their lives. In the past, parents used to nag at their teenage children for constantly being on the home phone with their friends. In the age of WhatsApp and Facebook, kids don’t even have to utter a single word to be in touch with their social circles.

Smartphones are effectively mini computers, so the perennial question of whether we should give our kids a phone is so much harder to answer these days. The main reason I gave my eldest daughter her first phone – a $50 keypad phone - when she turned 10 was because that was when she started taking the school bus home. We wanted to be able to communicate with her; to not have to worry endlessly if she arrives home a few minutes late, and to check if she has extra classes. These turned out to be valid concerns because we did get a tearful call from her one day, telling us that a replacement bus driver had taken her the wrong way to a different condominium with a similar sounding name.

When my eldest daughter, N, reached secondary school and had to take public transport, we decided to get her an Android phone so she could use Google Maps to get around. I watched her confidence grow with every use. No longer was she afraid to get around by herself. In Google Maps, she found a trusty guide who has helped her navigate Singapore.

Youths today don’t use their phones to make calls. WhatsApp and Telegram chat groups have become the de facto mode of communication for most of us. In my office, we talk about work through a Telegram group. In both my older girls’ lives, they form social cliques through WhatsApp groups. There is one for close friends, one for the science project group and one for the entire class with the form teacher. It would be a huge disadvantage to both my girls if they lacked smartphones as they would be left out of many conversations.

I know of some parents who prohibit their teenage children from joining social media on their phones by limiting their mobile data usage because they are afraid they might end up being targeted by bad hats. In my view, this may not be a tenable option and the better solution is to focus on education. Just as it was necessary to give my eldest daughter a keypad phone when she turned 10 so that I could stay in touch with her, it is now the norm for teenagers to communicate with each other and their teachers over WhatsApp and social media. Not doing so might actually do more harm than good.

The question remains on when is the right time to give your child a smartphone. It depends on the individual child. If they are asking for it to play Pokémon Go or to watch YouTube videos, that is not a necessity. But if their friends are chatting over WhatsApp and your child is the last kid standing without a smartphone, then you know the time has come.


Oo Gin Lee is the founder of Gloo PR. He is a father of three girls aged 14, 11 and five.

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