Does my ten-year old need her own mobile phone?

Originally written for Gulf News Opinion, published March 9, 2016:


She looks at my old, battered iPhone 5 (now repaired exactly four times) as though it’s the most beautiful thing on earth and I swallow my chuckle. “Well, nine days. You can have the phone for nine days. Only until we’re out of Dubai,” I say firmly.

The next nine days, while we were on vacation, were all about “my phone” and selfies, videos and texts were the order of the day. At the end of the nine days, however, the device was taken away. My daughter insisted that many of her classmates had their own phones and that she too, deserved to own one, but we did not relent.

The average age at which children are given ownership of mobile devices is getting younger than ever before. In a 2014 survey involving 10,985 parents from the Middle East (conducted by the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government), it was determined that 20 per cent of parents felt that children between the ages of eight and 10 should be allowed to own their own smartphones. The largest majority of parents, 28 per cent however, felt that children only above the age of 16 should be given smartphones, while 6 per cent believed that children under the age of five can be given their own smartphones.

Smartphones are used for everything — from talking, to texting, to playing games and of course for using the internet. In research conducted by the GSM Association (GSMA) involving children from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq and Algeria, it was determined that 38 per cent of those children who own a smartphone are “cell-mostly” internet users — they mostly go online using their phone and not on a desktop or laptop. The internet comes with its own risks — McAfee (intel security) reports that 87 per cent of children have been the target of cyber bullying, leading to anger and embarrassment.

McAfee further states that only 61 per cent of youth have enabled the privacy settings on their social networking profiles to protect their content, and 52 per cent do not turn off their location or GPS services across apps, leaving their locations visible to strangers. Additionally, 14 per cent have posted their home addresses online.

As parents, we trust our children to make smart decisions online, but monitoring them on the internet (and educating them about it) is essential. GSMA reports that 60 per cent of parents have concerns about their child being online and a whopping 88 per cent were worried about their children viewing inappropriate content. McAfee’s research further states that 74 per cent of parents (children’s ages 10-23) say they don’t have the time or the energy to keep up with everything their child is doing online. 46 per cent of children say they would change their online behaviour if they knew their parents were watching. Mobile phones offer far more freedom and personal space than, say, a family desktop or laptop and it becomes all the more tricky to keep a check.

When entrusting a child with a device such as a mobile phone, academics, in some cases, appear to suffer as well. Kent State University in Ohio carried out research that linked excessive mobile phone usage to poor grades and anxiety. Many children stay up at night just to be able to text their friends and many sleep with their devices under their pillows, exposing them to harmful radiation.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) identified smartphones as possibly carcinogenic to human beings. Radio waves received and sent by mobile phones transmit in all directions to find the nearest base station, even when the device is not being used and are absorbed by the body closest to where the device is held. A study by the Environmentalist Health Trust determined that the rate of radio wave absorption is higher in children than adults because their brain tissues are more absorbent, their skulls are thinner and their relative size is smaller. According to one study by De La Salle et al (2006), children absorb 60 per cent more radiation into the head than an adult.

Children’s immature nervous system makes them more susceptible to the long-term effects of mobile phone radiation, most of which remain to be documented. The heavy usage of mobile phones is only a few decades old and studies to find out just how damaging to health mobile devices are, are ongoing. It will take time before enough data is collected to prove anything certain, but many studies point towards brain tumours, reproductive problems, sleep disorders, headaches and anxiety.

For us, the risks of giving our ten-year-old a smartphone outweigh the benefits. Perhaps a simple device without internet would be useful in situations when she needs to contact us, but for the most part, I will be encouraging face-to-face contact with friends, sports, sunshine and as less screen time as possible.


Ten reasons to love the iPad

When the iPad was first released in April 2010, many wondered how a slate-like machine, which looked essentially like a glorified iPod would find its way into people’s digital lives, which were already full of touch-screen phones and laptops.

An excellent marketing campaign, Apple’s inherent elegance and Steve Jobs’ razor-sharp technological and business acumen meant that in March 2011, Apple had reportedly sold an estimated 20 million iPads. A gigantic global industry of Tablet PC’s has been created and Apple’s competitors are feverishly churning out their own touch-tablets.

Here are some of the ways the iPad has enriched our lives. Feel free to add to it.

1. iBooks. To many book-lovers (me included) this happens to be one of the best apps that the iPad offers. It feels as large as a book in your hand, has a large collection of e-books and enables you to read in pitch darkness even as your significant other snoozes away peacefully. Also, the virtual bookshelf does not take up space while even a small collection of real books will eat up the free square area in your home.

2. It’s a great toy for all ages. An iPad has revolutionized the toys industry. In the past, you got your child a huge, bulky toy that did and said smart things when you pressed a button, only to find that your child has gotten bored of the oh-so-expensive toy in a couple of hours. Enter iPad. Search the apps for children’s apps, and you get some 3482 results. Every app is actually a separate toy that can keep children occupied for ages, and teach them a thing or two as well, something we will explore in more detail in the next point.

3. Educational Apps. Not only is an iPad the ultimate toy with its games and activities, it is also an excellent educational device that can help your child grasp ABC’s, alif-baay-taa, spelling, math, languages, science, art and religion. It can unleash the hidden artist inside a two year-old with the added bonus that since all colour pencils are virtual, there is no way an iPad crayon will find itself writing on the wall. For a two year-old that is just learning to experiment with her fingers, what could be more fun than a screen that is so responsive it makes a line wherever she touches it? Read along stories are also excellent apps for younger users.

4. Angry Birds! This is not merely a game, it has become a phenomenon, and was first launched by Rovio for Apple’s iOS. It is now available on practically every other device, including the PC with Google Chrome, but for this writer, nothing beats the iPad experience! With over 12 million downloads from the App Store already, and over 250 million in all, Angry Birds even has its own line of merchandise. It is extremely addictive too, as it is unbelievably gratifying to watch the birds annihilate towers of wood, steel and glass and with them, the ugly green pigs. A word of caution, though. For the younger generation especially, too much of Angry Birds may breed violence since what we are essentially doing with that slingshot is destruction. This viral YouTube video tells you what Angry Birds in real life would be like!

5. Battery life. The iPad offers a whopping 10 hours of battery life and it lives up to its claim even after extensive use. Just to see if Steve Jobs’ claim about the battery life were in fact true, I put the device to the test, playing videos, games and TV apps. The iPad’s performance was as advertised.

6. iCloud. We’ve all heard rumours about the Apple CEO’s Steve Jobs’ ill-health, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying to make the ‘Apple experience’ even better as a new free service the Apple iCloud has been launched. The will automatically store on Apple’s servers many of the new files that a person loads onto a Mac, iPad or iPhone, and then make those files available on any other Apple devices owned by the same person.

7. Simplicity of the OS and web experience. The Apple iOS is neat and uncluttered and a great way to navigate the web. With most major news channels and websites, and social media networks (apart from Facebook) coming up with their own iPad apps, it is highly convenient too. Start-up and rebooting is quick and straightforward and it goes without saying: compared to a PC the iPad is ultra-portable, and very, very cool.

8. App Store. The App Store offers over 90,000 apps that can be downloaded by the users. Be it business or play or news, weather or radio, there is something for everyone. Check out the list of most downloaded apps of all time released recently by Apple.

9. iPad 2. In a bid to keep its place as market leader, the Apple improved upon the iPad and launched its successor. With its cameras, and smaller size and weight, magnetic case and 10-hour battery life, the iPad 2 is much faster than its predecessor and is high in demand, which reportedly exceeds supply. David Pogue of the NY Times called it a Matter of Emotions.

10. Better than the competition. Samsung Galaxy Tab, Motorola Xoom, RIM’s PlayBook and the Asustek’s Eee Pad Transformer are all alternates to the iPad, which is by far the most popular Tablet PC on the market. One reason for that could be that the App Store has more apps than any other competitor, and that consumers prefer the stylish hardware that Apple offers. It represented 75 per cent of all tablet PC sales in 2010.

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