Limiting smartphone use for children

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 11:16am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 11:16am

My son seems to spend most of his time playing with his smartphone. He isn't getting his homework done and has been in trouble for using his phone in class. Should I confiscate it?

The advent of the smartphone is so recent that parents and educators are still trying to understand the implications for children. On the positive side, smartphones offer instant communication with family and friends and have become a key part of a child's social interactions. However, there is increasing concern about children developing dependencies on their electronic devices. Smartphones are designed to be irresistible; combining dynamic social networking with messaging and games is guaranteed to be attractive to most students.

The key is balance. The temptation is to wade in and remove the phone, but that only provides a temporary fix. Rather than removing temptation, you want your son to be able to use his phone responsibly and you can create some areas of control in his life that will allow him to do so.

A study by the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology identified three main rewards users receive when they check their phones: information, such as checking the time or a news update; interactivity such as Facebook updates, which might trigger a discussion; and awareness such as checking for new e-mails, which give the user the impression that their universe is changing. It is the desire for these three rewards that explains why people check or touch their phones on a regular basis.

Perhaps removing his phone permanently isn't a good idea, but there may be times when it is less distracting for it to be out of sight. These could include when he is studying, or needs to complete another task that requires focus. This may cause unhappiness, but your concerns indicate that this strategy will be worth pursuing.

In a fascinating 2010 survey of Stanford University students, 75 per cent of respondents said that they slept with their smartphones in their beds. In British boarding schools, it is very common for house parents to come around in the evening to collect phones in order to protect students from disturbed-sleep patterns that result from interruptions. You might want to consider following their example with your son.

Young people learn by observing and copying both their peers and adults in their sphere of influence. It is all too common a sight to see a group of people having dinner with their smartphones nearby. Increasingly few people think twice before responding to a text message in the middle of a conversation. It's rude to the people in their presence, but children watch this behaviour and form the logical conclusion that this is an acceptable and adult way to behave. I have had a number of conversations in which parents have expressed their concerns about their child's inability to concentrate, and yet those conversations have been punctuated by them checking phones and responding to text messages. In every case, the behaviour has been automatic, but it does follow that a child observing these patterns is likely to imitate them.

You might want to consider banning phones at the dinner table - for both adults and children - as meal times are a key opportunity for parents and children to form social ties and to create safe environments in which to discuss areas of concern. Research has shown that children from families who eat a meal together on a daily basis are more likely to be secure and to have fewer problems establishing social relationships. If conversations are constantly interrupted, the degree of trust and empathy required to develop a deep relationship is less likely to be achieved.

Your son's school will have made their position on smartphone usage during lessons extremely clear. By making your son aware of his behaviour and creating phone-free zones and times, you can start to introduce balance at home and use the time to develop a robust relationship with him in the real world.

Jessica Ogilvy-Stuart is the director of the Brandon Learning Centre