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What age should my children get a cellphone? 5 Things you need to consider

This article by Hannes Wessels Educational Psychologist highlights factors to consider when getting a smartphone for your child

At what age should my children get a smartphone? 4 Things you need to consider.

With the onset of the tech, boom parents are faced with the question, at what age should my child get a cell phone? And if you are reading this the possibility is that your child is already nagging you for the latest smartphone or tablet.

Technology has demanded attention in our lives over the last few years. Just think about it. 10 years ago Facebook was still a new kid on the block. 20 years ago we were walking around with Tamagotchis and Walkmans. Smartphones, iPads, Whatsapp, Facebook, SnapChat and Youtube were still figments of our imagination. Ironically, these are the technologies dominating the social landscape of children.

It feels as if we were thrown into a game we were not ready to play and don’t fully understand yet, but need to become coaches already. The question is:  How do we coach the new generation about a game we have not fully mastered or understand yet.

My answer, let us first try to understand the game our opponents are trying to play…

 1.The Attention Economy

Tristan Harris , who used to be Google’s Design Ethicist makes a strong argument. We should no longer assume that our smartphones are a neutral technology. In his essays, he elaborates and provides various examples of how smartphones and applications exploit our psychological blind spots to keep us on our phones.

What I take from Tristan’s work, is that your smartphone is designed to keep your attention. Tristan cleverly states that we live in an attention economy. In his words:  “[In] the attention economy, every product will only get more persuasive over time”.  Therefore, you have to realise that when your child starts engaging with a cellphone that it will grab their attention and do its utmost best to keep it. Some of the world’s smartest computer engineers are working to keep your child on their app a few seconds longer because your attention equates to money for them. The difficulty is that the content grabbing your child’s attention is not necessarily the content to enrich their lives. For this, we need to be very strategic about the introduction of these technologies.

The difficulty is that the content grabbing your child’s attention is not necessarily the content to enrich their lives. For this, we need to be very strategic about the introduction of these technologies.

This brings me to the developmental perspective:

2.Your child’s cognitive development.

Developmentally I believe that it is important to give a smartphone to your child when they are responsible enough. This does not only apply to whether or not they might lose the phone but will they be responsible enough to consider what they post or send in the permanent world of the internet?

Developmentally a child’s metacognition starts developing at the age of about 7 to 8. Roughly explained,  metacognition is the ability to think about your thinking. Why is this critical? This is the stage where your child starts developing the awareness of their own thought processes. This is the age that your child can start to develop the skill of planning how to approach a task and use various strategies to problem solve. It also implies that at this age your child learns how to self-assess.

From the age of about 10 to 12  child’s abstract reasoning abilities start improving. Therefore, it is only at this age the average child will start developing the capacity to be able to think about the consequences of their actions or other’s actions.

E.g. When your child sees a celebrity is in the news for singing about their favourite drug, will they be able to think about their celebrity friend’s reasoning behind this? Will they be able to realise that this celebrity is probably using this article to increase their web presence?

3. Your child’s social development

At about the age of 10 to 12 social comparison’s are crucial to the formation of your child’s identity. Teenagers start comparing themselves to other people and form their identity on the basis of the comparisons they make. The reality is that currently the majority of the social comparisons your child will make is found on the social media apps they will engage with.

The difficulty as well is that your child will start making social judgements and comparisons to other children that have the latest technology. Photos are also considered social currency for children (now you know some of the motivation behind all of the selfies). So the choice that parents need to make is the balance between the thinkings skills and social currency.

4.Development of attention

Another concern is the relationship between attention, focus and academic achievement. Larry Rosen makes a strong statement about the impact of technological interruptions on our ability to concentrate and focus. In a nutshell as human beings, we are not made to multitask. Rather we jump from one activity to another.

If you are working on a project and your phone beeps with a message your attention drifts from the one task to another meaning that your focus on the other task is lost.

So think about this scenario. It is the afternoon after school and your child needs to do their Maths homework. Sitting at a table it will take few minutes for him/her to ‘get in the zone’. On average it will take your child about 12 minutes to ‘get into the zone’. After about three minutes the phone interrupts with an update from a social media platform.

Your child’s attention shifts from the homework to the phone for a split second, almost making the previous three minutes of engaging with the task null and void. Theoretically speaking it will take them another few minutes to get ‘in the zone’. However, with a constant interruption, this might never happen. This means that any attention given to the phone equates to less focus on the school work.

5. Theory of motivation.

The gamification of apps I believe is also an obstacle a parent needs to take into consideration. The top apps we have used have mastered the ability to grab your attention and rewards you for it. Many of the education apps on the various platforms also use a concept called gamification to intrigue your child. For instance every time your child provides a correct answer they are rewarded with a token or points in the app.

My worry about this is that your child’s education is driven by extrinsic motivation, and research has pointed out that this is a short term solution, however not a sustainable one for cognitively challenging tasks. Therefore, when your child is at school and they need to demonstrate some grit and perseverance to complete a task,  it is during this time that they need to tap into that intrinsic motivation, doing e.g. it for the art or self-improvement.

Suggested solution:

The difficulty is knowing this, does not take the nagging away to buy the latest iPhone or tablet. So what can you do?

Every family has unique ways of doing things and should also be taken into consideration. My suggestion is to have ‘unplugged time’ and ‘plugged time’ during daily chores and activities. The earlier you start with this routine the easier it will be to implement throughout your child’s adolescent years as well. During the plugged time your child can use the family tablet or their smartphone. Also strategically use the plugged time to explore with your child their social media world. What apps to they enjoy and the latest Minecraft structure they built. Reflect with them various ways people are making money on the internet. Reflect with them people’s motivations for posting stuff, even your own motivations for posting stuff. Through this activity, you become educated with your child about the smartphone world out there.

In conclusion

I would say that around the age of 11 to 12 is a strategic time to start letting your child own a smartphone. The trick is the earlier your start introducing plugged and unplugged time the easier the transition for them will be to accept the boundaries that you will place.

Therefore in order to decide if your child is ready for a smartphone to ask you:
  • To what extent will my child’s learning be extrinsically be motivated? Would he/she do something for the internal satisfaction versus the external reward?
  • Will my child be able to put their phone away for extended periods of time?
  • How much will having a cell phone 24/7 influence his/her development in their planning process?
  • Is my child mature enough to understand people’s motivations for posting content online?
  • Is my child mature enough to think about their own motivation for posting content online?
 More information
If you want more information on how to keep your child safe on the internet go to  SaveTNet’s website 
Hannes Wessels also does talk at school with parents, teachers and learners about becoming more Social Media Savvy. Contact Hannes for more information
Hannes Wessels
Hannes WesselsEducational Psychologist
Hannes Wessels is an educational psychologist based in Parkhurst and in Centurion. He has a special interest in cognitive behavioural therapy, career counselling and anxiety treatment. The psychological uses and impact of social media on people is also a field that intrigues him greatly. Therefore, he does various workshops related to social media use for parents, schools and health professionals.

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