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Dubai: The smartphone is a sticky issue in many homes. Never mind the endless debates that take place to arrive at the best option when it comes to a purchase. The question of when to give the children their first smartphone has no easy answers. While some feel the later the better, others beg to disagree.

A cross section of parents in the UAE, including some of our staffers who have completely divergent views, share their experience. On board is also a psychologist who addresses the biggest fear parents have when their children use smartphones: Addiction.

My son does not have a mobile phone at 15. Here’s why

By Alex Abraham, Senior Associate Editor

Many years ago, when a friend told me that she did not give her daughter a mobile phone till she passed out of Grade 12, I was aghast. How could a mother in this day and age do this to her child, I thought?

Over the years I have found myself moving in the same direction. My son, 15, does not have a mobile phone of his own. Of course, he is not happy because most of his friends have one. Every week we have the same discussion about when I will get him a smart phone.

I believe that mobile phones must be given to children when they are mature enough to handle one, not when they are of a particular age. I have heard the argument from the other side: “They will learn to handle phones when we trust them with it.” Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.

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I strongly believe that an unmonitored phone with a child is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, there are limits to monitoring gadgets and it is not always possible to track what children are doing. But as adults we have a responsibility in bringing them up.

– Alex Abraham, Senior Associate Editor (father of one)

Over the past year, most children have been at home attending lessons online. Without the need to go far away from home (either for tuition or with friends), I know that when my son is out of the house, he is usually around the block.

To chat with his friends, he uses my wife’s phone or the landline. WhatsApp messages from school groups land on my wife’s phone. The pandemic has helped us learn more about technology, but it has also increased our dependency on it. My son has an iPad that he uses before class, during class and after class. Trying to wean him away from it has proved frustrating. Another gadget in the form of a phone will be disastrous, at least in my home.

I strongly believe that an unmonitored phone with a child is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, there are limits to monitoring gadgets and it is not always possible to track what children are doing. But as adults we have a responsibility in bringing them up.

Signs of Phone addiction

Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal / Jay Hilotin

Who are we kidding? We’re dealing with digital natives here

By Sharmila Dhal, UAE Editor

I have an adult son, but a millennial alright. Born towards the end of the Gen Y spectrum, he grew up on a sumptuous tech diet. From PlayStations and Game Boys to Xbox and Wii, there were many options on the menu. Somewhere along the line, the Nokia N-Gage, a controller-shaped gaming smartphone, was also added.

I can’t remember at what stage it happened. But that to me is besides the point. Especially, when I look at the ease with which even an infant today picks up a smartphone, places it perfectly well on his tender earlobe and profoundly mumbles into it. The baby babble may be lost on me, but the action proverbially speaks louder than words.

The reason is simple. It stems from the fear that the phone will be used for dodgy entertainment and unwanted socialising. Now that doesn’t mean the smartphone is bad. The problem lies with its misuse and an inability to tell the yeses from the nos.

– Sharmila Dhal, UAE Editor (mother of one)

‘Digital natives’, ‘born to be digital’ – that’s what defines these Gen Zers, right? So who are we kidding? Not allowing a child, let alone a teen, to use a notepad or smartphone is no longer an option. Most parents have come to accept that calibrated digital tools are unavoidable in today’s education. But when it comes to a smartphone, reservations remain.

The reason is simple. It stems from the fear that the phone will be used for dodgy entertainment and unwanted socialising. Now that doesn’t mean the smartphone is bad. The problem lies with its misuse and an inability to tell the yeses from the nos. Holding off from giving your child a smartphone in today’s times amounts to a disservice.

It’s akin to denying your child a bicycle for fear that he could fall. You owe it to the child to teach him how to ride, negotiate those bumps and stave off stranger danger. Don’t ban the smartphone. Instead, teach your child to use it responsibly.

No option is risk-free and no option is easy

Tabitha Barda, Parenting Editor

The digital realm is the perilous new frontier of parenting. One little rectangle of technology opens up your child to an entire world of information and connection, which is also rife with potential dangers. And in my experience as an editor in the Parenting sector for the past seven years, I’ve learnt time and again that those dangers can be life-alteringly serious.

As a mum of three, aged seven, five and one, I realise there are so many factors to consider when thinking about whether to give your child a smart phone. Do you trust them to rise to the responsibility, and hopefully maintain a connected relationship where they can confide in you if something inappropriate happens? Or do you make the decision to delay their access to the technology and run the risk of alienating them and them going behind your back instead?

Personally, I am teetering on the edge of the technology wars with my kids and the whole thing terrifies me. It’s a huge responsibility for parents and boils down to a very subjective judgement call.

– Tabitha Barda, Parenting Editor (Mother of three)

It’s an exquisitely delicate balance. No option is risk-free and no option is easy. And crucially, both options require both sides to be ready: the child must be mature enough to handle the technology sensibly (and every child will reach this at a different age). But the parent also must have spent enough time learning about their child’s online world and its ever-changing potential dangers so that they can be fully informed about the situation and aware of the signs if something starts to go wrong. And there’s one non-negotiable: if you give your child a smartphone, you must be prepared and equipped to monitor its use in some way.

Personally, I am teetering on the edge of the technology wars with my kids and the whole thing terrifies me. It’s a huge responsibility for parents and boils down to a very subjective judgement call.

However, after countless interviews with digital experts who specialise in this area, my impression is that postponing the inevitable for as long as possible is the best approach to begin with (my seven-year-old doesn’t even have his own iPad yet and we’ve not allowed him access to games consoles yet either, although I anticipate this will have to change soon). The longer they grow up without one, the more chance that they will make better decisions when they do get one.

Don’t be peer pressured into giving your child technology earlier than you think is safe (not giving in to peer pressure is a good lesson for them to learn anyway).

Hear their side, explain yours

But equally, involve them in the conversation – many, ongoing conversations. If you don’t feel they’re ready to have a smartphone yet (or if you don’t feel up to the responsibility of monitoring it yet), talk to them about it; hear their side of the story and explain yours.

It’s only through open communication that you will learn whether they are ready. Do they appreciate how far-reaching tech can be? Do they understand the possible consequences of sharing images and thoughts online? Do they get how emotions can be misread or even hurt through text? How addictive digital devices are? How deceptive the online world can be? That people aren’t always who they say they are?

  • Do they appreciate how far-reaching tech can be?
  • Do they understand the possible consequences of sharing images and thoughts online?
  • Do they get how emotions can be misread or even hurt through text?
  • How addictive digital devices are?
  • How deceptive the online world can be?
  • That people aren’t always who they say they are?

All of this may sound a bit paranoid, but put it this way: would you allow your child to hang out in the mall with strangers alone without any ground rules or expectation of when they will be coming back? The digital world is just as risky as the real world. It requires the same preparation and monitoring. There will be missteps. There will be judgement errors. Inappropriate content will be seen. It’s about ensuring they are as equipped as possible to deal with that powerful little rectangle of technology, so that it remains a useful tool of connection and doesn’t turn into a Pandora’s Box.

Three families and their starting points

By Anjana Kumar, Senior Reporter

While an Indian couple gave their twin girls their first smartphone when they were 10, a Swiss mum of three waited till her kids went to secondary school. An Iraqi-Canadian family with three children feels 12 is the ideal age for children to own a phone.

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The Wadhwa twins got their phones at 10

“Today a smartphone is a necessity. As parents we will not achieve anything by banning our kids from using phones. Instead, we need to educate them and of course, keep a tab on their usage,” says Sangeeta Wadhwa, 42, a certified yoga trainer, nutritionist and homemaker.

She and her husband Vishal Wadhwa, 45, an IT professional, gave their twin daughters, now aged 15, smartphones when they were 10 years old. The girls, Chandni and Divya, studying in Grade 10, were initially given “hand-me-down” phones. When they turned 13, they got their own instruments.

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Sangeeta Wadhwa, 42, yoga trainer, nutritionist and homemaker: “Today a smartphone is a necessity. As parents we will not achieve anything by banning our kids from using phones. Instead, we need to educate them and of course, keep a tab on their usage.”

Vishal said their decision to give their girls the phone was because they attended several extracurricular classes and it was easy to communicate with them over the phone. “Children freely move around to meet friends. Not giving them a phone is not an option at all. Parents must make their children understand the the right way to use it.”

Sangeetha, however, admitted that as a parent, the biggest challenge she finds is restricting her daughters’ time spent on social media, especially during the pandemic. “So we keep a check on the girls every now and then.”

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The Wadhwa twins: “I love my smartphone. I use it for entertainment and also go on social media,” said Chandni. “I watch Netflix on this, talk to friends, scroll through Instagram, listen to songs, use it for taking photos, setting alarms and reminders. There are truly so many uses of the phone,” said Divya.

The girls have their own views. “I love my smartphone. I use it for entertainment and also go on social media,” said Chandni. “I watch Netflix on this, talk to friends, scroll through Instagram, listen to songs, use it for taking photos, setting alarms and reminders. There are truly so many uses of the phone,” said Divya.

Leyth, 11, doesn’t have a phone while his siblings do

Suhair Sharaf, Iraqi-Canadian, former lawyer, now a fashion blogger, said she gave her older two children Talal, 16 and Fawaz 14, their first smartphones when they were 12 years old. Her youngest Leyth, 11, still does not have his own phone.

“At what age a parent gives a child a phone is probably a very personal one, dependent on the family, child and their circumstances. In my case, Talal and Fawaz got their own phones when they transferred to middle school. This is when most children start to organise their own play dates and get-togethers with friends and the phone becomes a necessity.”

She added that by 12, most children have a phone of their own in the UAE. This adds to a peer pressure. “With my youngest, Leyth, he really hasn’t needed a phone yet because in his year group, get togethers with friends are still being organised by the parents. However, Leyth will likely receive a phone next year.”

According to Suhair, banning phones, really depends on the personal circumstances of the family and child. “Perhaps if the phone is causing harm where the child is using it for long periods of time, thereby creating health issues like eye strain, lack of exercise, then parents should probably place time limits.”

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According to Suhair Sharaf, banning phones, really depends on the personal circumstances of the family and child.

“Also, as is the case with any use of electronic devices, if a child is accessing sites or information that is inappropriate or harmful, that should be monitored as well. Similarly, if a child is losing adequate hours of sleep because he or she is on their phone late at night, this is probably another scenario where parents ought to set limitations.”

If the phone is being used to coordinate social activities with friends, then it is perfectly fine with her. She said the last year since the national sterilisation drive, she has been rather lenient with her children when it comes to their phone usage.

“I have to admit that during the recent national sterilisation drive, I have been more lenient with mobile and electronics use where it allowed my children to connect and socialise with their friends. However, my husband and I are mindful of what sites our children access and whether they communicate with strangers when playing online games, etc.”

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Talal, 16, says: “My friends and I definitely rely on our mobile phones to plan outings and we ask each other a question if we are not sure when a school assignment is due. However, I can see how mobile usage can get out of control if used to make fun of people and bully others.

Talal said: “My friends and I definitely rely on our mobile phones to plan outings and we ask each other a question if we are not sure when a school assignment is due. However, I can see how mobile usage can get out of control if used to make fun of people and bully others. I think there have been instances of that occurring on certain social media platforms. So, it is important to be aware that these types of issues exist and when to draw the line between what is appropriate and inappropriate.”

It’s about independence, says Swiss mum

Swiss expat mum of three Angela Georgiev-Kill, 45, said of her three children, aged 13, 11 and 10, the older two have a phone so far.

“Children need more independence as they move to secondary school. They have more responsibility in their schools. As parents, we do not punish our children if they are overusing their phone by banning it. We talk to them, advise them and keep a tab on their usage. We casually check the content on groups. Children also need to ask before downloading an app.”

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Illijana, 13, studying in Year 9, says: “A smartphone is a necessity for me. It is a way of communicating with people. I follow news as well on my smart phone.

Her daughter Illijana, 13, studying in Year 9, said, “A smartphone is a necessity for me. It is a way of communicating with people. I follow news as well on my smart phone. Various app downloads help me to go about my daily life as well in a faster and better manner.”

Psychiatrists have divergent views on excessive phone use

By Jay Hilotin, Senior Assistant Editor

Is problematic phone use truly an addiction — or is it just an impulse-control issue? The debate rages on among medical and mental health professionals. The views diverge widely: some don’t want to call it an “addiction” per se; others point to a raft of negative effects of pathological phone use.

Mobile phone usage

Image Credit: Seyyed dela Llata / Gulf News

However, it’s a fact that excessive cell phone use (even while driving!) has caused problems (including accidents, death) for lots of people. And in the last five years, Google Trends indicates a spike in searches for “cell phone addiction”.

New terms have become part of modern-day lexicon as a result of phone use, such as:

■ Nomophobia: The fear of going without your phone

■ Textaphrenia: The fear that you can’t send or receive texts

■ Phantom Vibrations: The feeling that your phone is alerting you when it really isn’t.

So while some medical experts are reluctant to assign the word “addiction” to anything other than habitual substance misuse, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the handbook used in the medical community to diagnose mental disorders) does recognise one behavioral addiction: compulsive gambling.

When can a behaviour be considered an addiction?

Psychiatrists point to some important similarities between cell phone overuse and recognised behavioural addictions like compulsive gambling.

The similarities include:

  • Loss of control over the behaviour.
  • Persistence, or having real difficulty limiting the behaviour.
  • Tolerance, the need to engage in the behaviour more often to get the same feeling.
  • Severe negative consequences stemming from the behaviour.
  • Withdrawal, or feelings of irritability and anxiety when the behavior isn’t practiced.
  • Relapse, or picking up the habit again after periods of avoidance.

Sources: Statista, Pew Research Center

Is your child overusing the smartphone? Here is how you can tell

The check list is simple. Dr Beema Mashhoor, psychologist at LifeWorks Holistic Counseling Centre said: “I have listed some questions. If your answer is yes to most of them, then it’s time to pause and assess your addiction to the phone.”

■ Do you sleep with your smartphone on or under your pillow or next to your bed regularly?

■ Do you find yourself passing time on a regular basis by browsing through your smartphone?

■ Do you tweet, text, call, email or browse while driving?

■ Do you seem to lose track of time when on your phone?

■ Do you always carry your smartphone when leaving home, even for a short distance?

■ Do you use your phone while eating?

■ Do you check your phone many times a day even when you know there is likely nothing new or important to see?

■Do you bump into things while checking your phone?

■ Do you keep looking and downloading apps even though you don’t need them in your daily routine?

■ Do you find yourself taking selfies and seeing social media throughout the day?



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