When should parents give their child a phone?

Experts say there are no hard and fast rules on when a child should be given a smartphone and that it depends on the child’s maturity



11 March 2018

Venessa Lee


Many children have their own mobile phones these days. But how young is too young for a child to join the ranks of screen-swipers and app-users?

Experts say there are no hard and fast rules, though parents should set boundaries and monitor usage.

Four-year-old Trina Shah, for example, has her own phone. She likes to use the colouring app on her phone best, although she also likes to play other games on it, such as those that involve going to the supermarket or taking care of babies.

She asked for a phone after she saw her eight-year-old elder sisters, twins Tania and Tiara, with their own mobile phones.

Her parents gave Trina an old mobile phone without a SIM card or data plan so she could play the “baby games” she likes, says her mother, Ms Ayesha Patricia, 39.

The stay-at-home mother is married to a 43-year-old who works in banking.

The couple gave Tania and Tiara their first mobile phones at six, when they entered Primary 1, to keep in touch with the girls when picking them up from school after their co-curricular activities.

“We felt more comfortable knowing that we could contact them easily,” says Ms Ayesha.

The older girls, who are now in Primary 3, use educational and entertainment apps, as well as WhatsApp to message their friends and relatives around the world.

Trina had wanted to use her sisters’ phones to play games, which resulted in arguments and tantrums because the older girls did not want Trina to do so, or to install such apps on their phones, says Ms Ayesha.

She adds that her four-year-old daughter usually uses her phone for 10 minutes at a time.

“Her phone usage is quite low because I feel it’s more about her wanting a phone since all of us at home have one except her,” says Ms Ayesha.

While Trina is younger than most children in having her own mobile phone, experts say there are no prescriptive answers when deciding the right age to give one’s child his first phone.

Ms Carol Loi, founder and principal consultant at Village Consultancy, which provides digital literacy education, puts it this way: “What would be the right age to let a child use a knife independently? Or to let a child cross the road or use public transport independently?

“The answer to such questions is not a number – it is about a child’s readiness for this responsibility, and parents’ willingness to accept the consequences if a child is given the responsibility but is not ready to take it on.

“It is the same for a child’s first mobile phone. It is irresponsible to give a child a phone without showing the child how to use it safely, and to set boundaries and expectation.”

Some things to consider before giving a child his first mobile phone are how well he takes care of his belongings; whether he is responsible when it comes to doing homework or chores; and how strong his self-control is, says the consultant and parenting coach.

In addition, for smartphones with social media and messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, parents should consider issues such as whether their children can tell if an image or video is appropriate, and how well the child is able to say no to others, especially when facing peer pressure.

She adds: “The minimum age requirement for most social media and messaging platforms is 13. If parents choose to give their child a phone with social media and messaging platforms, they need to monitor them even more closely and implement agreed boundaries.”

Monitoring the child’s phone usage, especially in the initial months, could include checking the phone periodically to ensure the child is using it safely and installing filtering or monitoring tools after discussing this with the child, says Ms Loi.

In Ms Kavitha Velayutham’s case, she felt that her daughter Tejaswini Sreetharan, 10, was “ready to be independent” when she got her first smartphone last year at the age of nine.

Ms Kavitha, 41, who works as a waitress, says that Tejaswini, who is now in Primary 5, did not lose her belongings and always remembered to take essential items with her, such as her wallet and house keys.

She was further reassured when Tejaswini complied fully with her ground rules, such as using the phone to call her about five times a day to give updates on her whereabouts.

Besides calling her mother, Tejaswini uses her phone to send WhatsApp messages to friends and schoolmates.

She also uses an app that enables her to create and share short music videos.

But not all parents feel their children are ready to have their first mobile phones while in primary school.

Ms Anne Soh, 46, gave each of her three teenage children a “dinosaur phone” only when they were in Secondary 1.

At the start of secondary school, they were given keypad phones to be used only to make calls and send text messages to let their parents know if they had last-minute engagements in school.

Her children, aged between 13 and 19, could graduate to using smartphones only when they showed that they used their keypad phones wisely, says Ms Soh, who works part-time as a pastoral assistant at a church.

She is still guiding her 13-year-old daughter on the proper usage of her mobile phone as she feels her daughter is spending a lot of time on her keypad phone “scrolling through old text messages and sending replies with smiley faces incessantly”.

Her two older sons had to comply with rules such as completing their homework and house tasks before using the phone, and only using their devices in the living room.

The boys, aged 17 and 19, were given smartphones with no data plans when they were in Secondary 3.

Ms Soh says she implements such restrictions, which she first discusses with her children, “to prevent screen addiction and to teach them how to manage phone usage themselves”.

Gabriella Jiow, 14, says she benefited from a similar arrangement.

She signed three “contracts” with her father, Dr Jiow Hee Jhee, 45, between the end of Primary 5 and the beginning of Secondary 1. Each agreement granted her more freedom to use her smartphone.

At first, she could use WhatsApp to send her friends messages. Then she moved on to listening to music on her phone before having full use of it.

“When I was younger, I didn’t understand the reason for these agreements. But my dad made me understand where he’s coming from and the need for self-control,” says Gabriella, a Secondary 2 student, adding that she deleted Instagram last year for three weeks before her examinations so she could focus on her revision.

Dr Jiow, an assistant professor at Singapore Institute of Technology, lectures in criminology and also does research on media use in families.

The Media Literacy Council member is also putting his other two daughters through their paces on smartphone usage.

Gayle, nine, and Genevieve, 12, currently share a smartphone that they use to inform their parents of their whereabouts. His youngest child, six-year-old Josiah, does not use a smartphone.


“Not every parent thinks through the ramifications of giving their child a phone”, says Ms Kelvyanne Teoh, principal therapist at Morning Star Community Services, a charity that aims to enrich and strengthen family relationships in Singapore.


For example, there are role-playing and other games that children might play on their smartphones, where chatrooms in which players can chat freely are embedded. Predators may lurk in such online spaces and try to groom children for inappropriate relationships or disclosures.

She also cautions against parents using mobile phones as “babysitting” tools.

“It is important that parents have a good relationship with their kids. If that is lacking, then online friends and entertainment look more attractive,” she says, adding that a child who is not doing well at school and has a poor relationship with his parents may succumb to cellphone addiction.

Mrs Den Hernie Andersen, 42, says it is a balance between obedience and independence.

The Singaporean, who is married to a Danish shipbroker, gave her eldest son Jonathan, 12, a mobile phone at the age of 10, and her second son, Jamie, nine, one earlier this year.

Her youngest son, Jacob, six, does not have his own phone.

She confiscates her sons’ phones if they spend too much time on them instead of studying and scans their browser history to check their surfing habits.

But she also lets them listen to music on their phones and play games at agreed times.

She says: “While they cannot depend too much on their phones, you also need to give them a bit of freedom.”


This article was originally published in The Sunday Times on 11 March 2018

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