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Commentary: When should children be allowed to have their own mobile phones?

If you haven’t set clear boundaries about technology use or had conversations about it with your child, then passing junior a phone is likely to be premature, says one mother of three.

Commentary: When should children be allowed to have their own mobile phones?

Children place their mobile phones in a installed locker at McDonald’s Marine Cove outlet. (Photo: McDonald's)

SINGAPORE: Recent news about the French issuing a nationwide ban on mobile phone use in schools created a slight uproar, with ripples reaching here in Singapore where it is not uncommon to see children as young as those in Primary 1 brandishing their own mobile phones.

We all know the pros and cons of having a phone – the convenience of being able to contact your children versus the danger of falling into different forms of cyber addiction. So how do we balance these out?

How should we be making our decisions as to whether or not to give our kids a phone, when to give it, and how to control it?


Is age a good gauge for when to give a child a phone? 

Children develop and mature at their own individual pace. While my daughter may be emotionally and mentally ready to bear the responsibility for an expensive item like a phone by a certain age, I may not be able to say the same for her younger brothers, who may need a couple more years to catch up to a similar level of maturity. 

Some people would say it’s not wise for a child in lower primary to carry a phone as they may misplace it. My own son who started Primary 1 this year has already lost an umbrella, a water bottle and a wallet (although this was later retrieved), so I cannot yet fathom placing a mobile phone in his care at this stage.

There is also no need for him to have one as I pick him from school every day. However, some kids start to travel home alone at an early age, so it’s understandable that their parents would prefer for them to hold on to a phone so they can contact them if there is an emergency.

READ: Learning to let go as a parent of a Primary 1 child, a commentary

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A child plays a game on his phone (Photo: Reuters/Brendan McDermid) Penelope Patterson plays a game on his phone at his home in Brooklyn, New York, U.S. December 13, 2016. Picture taken December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

So individual needs have to be considered too – or the whys of having a phone.

However, we have to bear in mind that the younger the child’s age, the more controls need to be set in place.


Maybe the question shouldn’t be when or why to give your child a phone, but how?

If you haven’t set clear boundaries about technology use or had conversations about it with your child, then passing junior a phone is likely to be premature.

Giving a child a phone without prior training is like putting him on a table with 10 marshmallows, telling him not to eat them, and then leaving the room. It doesn’t take much to know what’ll happen next.

I’m referring to the Stanford marshmallow experiment of course, which is a series of studies on delayed gratification. Its findings suggest that children who are able to delay their gratification in order to receive an even better reward – two marshmallows instead of one – go on to do better in life.

Seeing that the phone is about as tempting for little fingers as a fluffy white marshmallow, what we want to do with children is this: Before letting them loose with the phone, educate them on the benefits of having one, and provide some handles on how to manage potential pitfalls such as addictive behaviour and frequent notifications.

It is this process of equipping them with the necessary skills to master technology that will enable them not to be enslaved to it in the future.

READ: Self-control in childhood, the best predictor of success in adulthood, a commentary

We often underestimate the temptation that come in this 5" by 3" gadget. Even adults get hooked on phones and our time and energy often get sucked away as we scroll mindlessly through apps and websites. So what more for children?

A person using a smartphone. (File photo: Xabryna Kek) File photo of a person using a mobile phone.

A friend gave her daughter her own phone when she began using public transport at Primary 6. 

About a year before that, she had started to actively introduce her to various apps, while taking care to mention the ways she manages phone distractions whenever she’s working. She also allowed her daughter to use her phone’s Whatsapp for school-related group chats.

In other words, she has been setting the stage for responsible use, using her own media habits as a model for her daughter.

There are also other controls we can put in place – such as setting a phone curfew so that the gadgets can be “retired” for the day and recharged, limiting time spent on games, and restricting social media use until the child is of a certain age and maturity.


What do we value as a family? What are our own digital habits?

Asking such questions can help us set the tone for how technology is used in our homes.

If we value relationships, we will take pains to lay gadgets aside before any social gathering.

If we value family time, we will establish some tech-free zones and times in the house, so that we can catch up properly at least once or twice a week.

If respect for elders is a big thing in our households, then we would encourage our young to interact with their seniors rather than stare at their screens the moment they step into grandma’s house.

Our values determine to some extent the way we (and our offspring) interact with technology.

Once set, these habits can be hard to change, so it makes sense to think about them early when our children are still open to instruction. It is a conversation that we need to keep going, not just at the point of handing our children a phone. 

A child playing a mobile game. (Photo: Reuters) A child plays the game "Honour of Kings" by Tencent at home in Dezhou, Shandong province, China July 2, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer/Files

And as our kids grow, the rules and routines may evolve with time, but the values behind them usually don’t change.  


As parents, we are responsible for teaching our children multiple skills, from life skills such as learning how to button a shirt, to literacy and social skills.

Today, we also need to teach technology skills, not so much the technicalities of how to work a phone, but rather wise and responsible usage.

Just like how we teach a child to ride a bicycle, we start with the basics and set some ground rules to ensure safety.

Perhaps we should give provisional licences to our kids when they start having their own phones, or do up a family tech-time contract together. It will remind us to maintain strict controls and close supervision, while also watching our own behaviour.

The more our children can prove that they are able to handle the distractions and temptations that come with phone ownership, the more trust we can offer in return.

Technology, minus the skills and maturity to handle it, can be dangerous. But if we give our kids the skills to manage technology, we can be more confident in handing over a phone too – with a P-plate on it.

June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)