Smartphones, as most if not all of us would know today, are mobile phones with advanced mobile operating systems, combining other mobile devices such as personal digital assistants (PDAs), media players and GPS navigation units. Most have touchscreen user interfaces, the ability to run third-party applications (or “apps”) and have in-built cameras. Would it surprise you that most modern-day smartphones have only been around for about 10 years? Apple first launched the iPhone (one of the first smartphones to use a multi-touch interface) in 2007 (only 8 years ago), and 3G capabilities were unrolled around 1998 (and 4G in 2008). If your child or children have not reached their teens yet, e.g. they are 12 or younger, chances are that they have grown up all their lives exposed and used to the use of smartphones, 3G/4G data plans, round-the-clock cable television, and the rise of social media networks (Facebook launched in 2004, YouTube in 2005).

Amidst all the benefits of smartphones, they have also grown to become a major source of stress, danger and risk, especially to young people today. In June 2013, it was reported that 70% of South Korea’s 50 million people had smartphones (the highest penetration rate in the world), of which 80% aged 12-19 owned smartphones in 2012, double the 2011 figure. Nearly 40% of these teens spent more than 3 hours a day tweeting, chatting, or playing games, and that nearly 20% of teens were “addicted” to smartphones. In February 2014, it was reported that in China, there are an estimated 300 Internet addiction centres, and that more than 24 million young Chinese were addicted to the Internet. Closer to home, just last year, it was noted that addiction to social media and video downloading are on the rise, and surpassing obsession with online gaming amongst young adult psychiatric patients. Cyberwellness programs are now being launched and targeted for pre-school children, even as addiction grows in Singapore.

Here are just some healthy tips on how we can get our kids away from smartphones, or any other devices or activities that might grow into an obsession or addiction e.g. watching television, gaming, etc.

  • Lead by example.
    The best way and start is to inculcate healthy and positive habits as parents ourselves. It is rather difficult and challenging to tell your kids to get off their smartphones when we ourselves are habitually checking our Facebook updates or Whatsapp messages. One initiative by students from NTU in 2013 was the “Put it on Friend mode” campaign, where the public was encouraged to put their phones in a facedown position when they are with loved ones. This would work best for example during mealtimes, or other opportunities for face-to-face social interaction.
  • Engage in wholesome, healthy activities.
    Encourage and promote physical rather than digital activities. Research has shown that touch is the first means of communication and learning in early childhood. Provide healthy alternatives rather than just withhold or eliminate negative habits, so instead of just taking away your child’s smartphone and banishing them to their rooms, suggest creative and imaginative activities such as reading, sports, arts and music.
  • Limit screen time.
    Different psychological studies in recent years have reported significant negative effects of too early exposure to watching television (and by extension, the use of smart devices, which are increasingly replacing TVs as the primary source of entertainment and information). These include language delay, concentration problems, impulsiveness, restlessness and aggressive behaviour in later years as early as 6. Every added hour of watching TV increased a child’s odds of having attention problems by about 10%. A recent Japanese study also argued that too much television and digital entertainment negatively affects brain development and lead to lower verbal intelligence and damaged brain structures.Experts strongly encourage parents not to introduce television to children under 2 (or in the context of this article, YouTube videos on your phone or tablet), as the oversaturation and stimulus could affect their overall neurocognitive development. Toddlers learn best from real-world experiences and interactions, and exploring the world and using their senses are extremely important in their development process. For children 2 years and older, the advice given is to limit usage to at most 2 hours a day of screen or device time. The most radical advice I’ve heard is to not buy or give a smartphone for your child to use or own. Unless absolutely necessary, this would prevent or delay a growing need or addiction to using smartphones. Perhaps consider a “dumbphone” (a phone that is just a phone, e.g. without Internet, games or other smartphone functions).
  • Limit alone time.
    Where possible, parental guidance is suggested, meaning being very involved in your child’s experience with electronic devices, especially at a young age. Perhaps only allowing your child to use the smartphone in your presence for a mutually agreed upon duration of time. Added measures would include password protection and installing security apps on your smartphone or tablet, so that your child has to come to you when he or she wants to unlock it, and so you can monitor and track what they are accessing whilst using it.Studies have shown that kids who sleep with smartphones by their bedside get less sleep on average than kids who fall asleep in a smartphone-free environment. They are also more
    likely to complain about the quality of their sleep. Parents can set a screen or device curfew one hour before bedtime, and to have devices such as TVs and smartphones not in their bedrooms, and especially not to use them just before bedtime.

Of all the above suggestions, I would start or recommend the first 2, leading by example and finding positive, healthy activities to engage in. This would help or at least set you and your child on the right track towards a more balanced use of smartphones with healthy habits and lifestyles.


Article published on New Age Parents e-magazine