Psychologist: Children can spend lots of time playing with smartphones just out of boredom. There is no “right age” to buy one (Interview)

Psychologist: Children can spend lots of time playing with smartphones just out of boredom. There is no “right age” to buy one (Interview)

A lot of parents constantly ask themselves this question. What is the right time to buy a smartphone for your child? What should you consider? How can parents  make it the most beneficial for their child? These are just a few of the many questions we have asked Psychologist Karolina Schubertova.

Many parents have to deal with the question about the right time for buying a smartphone for a child. Is there any ultimate answer to this?

It depends on various circumstances. First, we have to think of why we want to buy the smartphone for a child. For example, if a child is starting to go home from school alone. We might need them to contact us and a simple push-button phone could be used for that. But if a child asks for a smartphone themselves (maybe their friend has one, or most of their classmates), we need to think about whether they are ready for the responsibilities that will be opened up in this new world. 

Rather than using just age, we should also take into account the child's abilities. Have their parents talked to them before about the things they may come across on the Internet, and how to behave properly in a risky situation online?

Which factors should influence parents’ decision to buy a smartphone for their child?

As I mentioned, it depends on the child's familiarity with how to use such a device safely. What risks they may face when surfing the Internet. And they should also know who to contact if they encounter something they can't cope with.

Also, besides only using applications, the child needs to have command of all the basic functions of the phone, such as making calls or texting. It's good to teach the child how to call for help using their smartphone if necessary. 

Then the purchase depends on the reason why a parent wants to buy their child a smartphone. As I’ve said, when it comes to only being able to locate your child and know they are home safe, a push-button telephone is enough. If the child wants a smartphone, not a push-button cell, there should be a discussion as to why exactly they want it, what they would use it for, and then it's up to the parent to consider whether it is appropriate. 

Children should also not be afraid to share with their parents if something has scared them or made them feel uncomfortable on the Internet, so the trust factor is important. Before entering the online world, your child should have basic user skills and be aware of the risks. Last but not least, there is the financial side. If we buy a phone for a smaller child, talking about cost we should consider the possibility that they might lose or break it.

When parents decide that this time has not yet come, they are likely to face their child's resistance. How can you reasonably discuss your decision to them?

Clearly, just a “no” without any argument is not enough. If you decide that your child is not yet mature to have a phone, it is good to sit down with them and explain calmly the reasons why you, their parents, have decided so. Ask your child why they want a phone and try to agree with them on how to find a solution without their own phone. For instance, they can sometimes borrow a parent’s phone to watch a YouTube video or play a game. Online content is part of the debate among children and your child might want to be able to participate in it. 

In terms of the increase in making such decisions, do you have the feeling that kids who have had access to cell phones in recent years are younger and younger?

This may seem so, because we feel like we see more very young children on the phone and we talk about it more often. But I don't have the data available, so I can't say for certain. 

Do you think that this can have a negative impact on their development?

Each new technology raises concerns about the impact on humanity. In the 1960s, media theorist McLuhan described how in the past, people had feared coming of gramophones. They thought it would lead to a lack of communication and thus vocal chords would be stunted. Every technology carries good and bad. Smartphones have become a common part of ours and our children’s lives. My personal opinion is that you have to offer your child other activities to do, rather than just phone time. 

A child's brain is flexible, very shapable in response to the stimuli it receives. That's why it's important that children have a large number of different stimuli and not just those on the displays. It is especially important for physical movement. Nowadays, we are all affected by various information stimuli, and not only children but also adults can feel overwhelmed. So let’s try to turn everything off sometimes and go out into the outdoors. 

If parents decide to buy their child a mobile phone, what do you think is the maximum amount of time your child should spend with it?

More important than the question of how much time a child spends on the phone is the question of how they spend it. There are many good educational applications (such as the well-known Duolingo for language learning). During the various COVID-19 restrictions that we have all experienced, the telephone was a great way to connect with others. At least partially it complemented the social contact between children, which is very crucial to them. 

However, the increase in time using smartphones has led to a child getting used to this type of “entertainment” and the more difficult it is to break away. Some balance is therefore needed. A child can spend a lot of time on the phone out of boredom. Therefore, it is good to offer some substitute activities. 

For example, here’s my recent experience from 15 to16-year-olds in high school, where students stated that they have a daily limit of 1-1.5 hours on the phone and it suits them. Some even mentioned that if they did not have this limit, they would spend a lot of time there and have trouble postponing it. It's all about the agreement with the parent. From other time data, I would mention the unsuitability of using the phone about an hour and a half before bed. The displays emit a so-called blue light and contribute to problems with sleep and sleep quality. 

What should parents consider the most when letting their child use a mobile phone?

I would mention downloading applications, which can often be paid or have additional payments in gaming applications. Other risks relate to surfing online itself and on social networks. I’d also recommend not to use all displays 90 minutes before bedtime, as I’ve said before. 

Do you think that it is appropriate for parents to control their child's activity in some way, ie how they use a mobile phone?

The parent-child relationship should be based on trust. And this also applies when setting rules for the use of mobile phones. The basis should be an agreement between the parent and the child on how much time the child will spend using the cell phone. You can start by asking your child if they have an idea of how much, then tell them what your idea is and agree on a solution. 

Applications that limit the time spent on the phone and help you keep the agreement are also useful. An agreement on how much time can be spent on the phone and other behaviors associated with it (phones while eating, at bedtime, etc.) can be written and signed by the parent and child. Post it in a common place on the refrigerator or notice board. 

It is also possible to use some parental applications to control your child's phone. Google Family Link is among the most favoured ones. You can create a separate Google Account for your child and regulate the downloads and use of applications, or track their location. 

Paid apps include Qustodio and Norton Family. Each parent can find something to suit them. But it isn't an appropriate solution to punish or to simply turn off some applications without talking to the child. Give a reason, explain why and what and how. The basis is a healthy dialogue about what the child saw, so that they're not afraid to ask with questions. It's also a good idea to keep in mind that the content that your child sees doesn't always come from their phone, they can see it, for example, on a friend's phone. 

Let’s talk about social networks. Although they have age restrictions, they can be bypassed. Do you think it is appropriate for children to be on socials?

The social networks most of the kids use have an age limit of 13 years. Children often say that registrations are simply completed by changing their date of birth. For example, according to the E-safety server, a quarter of Czech children aged 10-12 have TikTok. 

There is a lot of fun and inspiration on social networks, but also some pitfalls that a child must be well prepared for in order to know how to behave in a given situation. Some children may be “ready” at the age of 11, others at 15. It is not easy to just restrict the child. What happens on social networks and generally online is the subject of conversation between children and adolescents. If the child is not oriented, he may be “pushed out” of the conversation or isolated. 

During my internship, I met an eight-year-old gifted boy whose mother could not understand why he spends time playing computer games when he has so many other and more useful interests. The boy then said that he didn't like the games much, but his classmates at school talked about them and he wanted to have something to talk about with them. 

From what age do you think Facebook, Instagram or TikTok are appropriate for children?

As I mentioned, each network has age limits, most often a user needs to be at least thirteen to create an account. A child should be aware of the risks that await them on the Internet and be able to respond to them appropriately, have the opportunity to talk about them. The basic knowledge is the protection of privacy or the awareness that what we put on the Internet will never completely disappear from it. 

What is the biggest threat to children on social networks?

I would not use the word threat, which can evoke that something threatening can happen to me every time a child goes online. Surfing online is associated with both positives and risks. A child may encounter predators, online pornography, fraudulent traffickers, pornography or cyberbullying. It is important to talk to your child about the fact that you can find really everything on the Internet. And that includes both useful and inappropriate things.

Tell your child that if they encounter any content they do not understand, there is always the possibility of blocking an account or reporting a post. If they encounter inappropriate content directed at someone, tell them not to share it further or to consult with someone. Even in online space, decent behavior applies the same as it does in the real world. Just like we ask our children not to go anywhere with strangers, the same goes for the online world and meetings with strangers. 

It is important to create an environment where your child talks openly about what they come across, so that in the event of a risky situation, they are not afraid to turn to us for help or explanation. With these rules we can maximise their security of surfing social networks.

But let's not just talk about cons, having a mobile phone certainly has some pros for a child. To you, what are the main ones?

I’m glad you mentioned it. The first thing that comes to mind is the possibility to contact a parent quickly if necessary, the parent can also find out where the child is. We also need to realise that smartphones and applications are already an important part of children's lives today, for several reasons. 

First, children can stay in touch with friends they don't have the opportunity to see so often. Another social aspect is to be part of a group. Many classes and other groups create group chats where they discuss various topics or send something to each other. 

A child who does not keep up with such a group may be excluded from what is important to them. Naturally, they want to belong to the group and orient themselves in current topics. Even outside of these closed groups, the child wants to follow what their classmates do, and then have similar conversation topics with them. 

Partly, we should look at social networks in terms of the possibility of developing creativity. If your child uploads their own videos on TikTok, imagination and creativity work. Even making videos about video games can become a hobby. 

For older children, it can be a source of inspiration in finding themselves, they can connect with people who share the same interests, test the audience's reaction to their speech in a safe environment or learn something new. 

Do you think it is important for parents to talk regularly to their child about using a mobile phone?

Absolutely. It is ideal to set a regular time each week. Of course, we probably won't find the popular TikTokers or Youtubers as interesting as our child will. Expressing interest like “Show me what you are watching, I would also like to understand how this works” will please your child and they will not be afraid to share with us what they encounter online. We must also not forget that we ourselves are a model of using the phone for the child, so if, for example, we do not want the child to use the phone while eating, we should put it aside as well. 

Do you think the amount that parents invest in a mobile phone is important?

I’m not really good when it comes to the technological parameters of phones with regards to price, so I probably can not fully answer this question. I can only say that the amount that parents will be willing to invest is fully up to them. Due to the age of the child, it is also necessary to take into account that the phone is easily lost or broken. Parental applications can be downloaded to most types of smartphones, and the parent-child trust rule also applies here

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