Your child goes to primary school in a few days. Should you get him or her a mobile phone? As a parent who has waited for my children at the gates at release time, I have seen numerous children, even those in Primary 1, whip their mobile devices out immediately upon emerging from the school gates.

Obviously, children of this generation are no strangers to mobile phones, and parents have no qualms giving one of these handheld communication devices to their children. But is it a good idea to do so?


How Connected are Our Children?

By 2013, Singapore’s population of 5.3 million had eight million mobile phone lines, 6.6 times more than the number of residential phone lines nationwide. Many here have more than one mobile phone, explaining the 152 per cent mobile phone penetration. Up to 74 per cent or nearly six million of these mobile phones are smartphones.

Twelve per cent or 626,300 of Singapore’s population consists of children below 14 years old. While there is no way to confirm the exact number of children in this age group who own mobile phones, a quick informal poll among my parent-friends and their friends (whose children and whose children’s classmates are all mobile phone owners) indicates it should be in the majority.

While children are allowed to bring a phone to school as long as it is not used during school hours, local primary schools do advise parents not to let their children to have a mobile phone. Most schools issue the a written warning about this at the start of the school year.

At some schools, a student is caught carrying a mobile phone without special permit from the principal will have the phone confiscated and the parents called in. All P1 students are taught how to use the public phones on school premises.

Signing Up For Your Child

Service providers set a minimum age for those who can sign up with for a mobile phone plan. StarHub offers student plans with or without data for children with a valid student pass.

SingTel has a youth plan which is bundled with data usage. Children from seven to 18 years old can apply, but are required to have a sponsor or guarantor’s documents. At M1, customers have to be at least 16 years old to sign up for a postpaid line, and 15 years old to sign up for a prepaid line.

Mr Tian Ung Ping, Assistant Vice President of Mobile Post-paid Services of StarHub tells us that they have young mobile users aged 12 and below, but information about their usage pattern is not known because their mobile plan is in their parents’ name.

As he explains: “This occurs when parents sign up for two additional mobile lines for their children under StarHub’s SharePlus. SharePlus allows subscribers to share the bundled talktime, SMS and data of their main mobile plan with up to two dependent mobile lines.”

In addition to such situation, he stated, “We also believe that parents apply for our mobile pre-paid service on behalf of their children”.

Kids playing at home with smartphones

Are Our Children Ready?

“There is no ideal minimum age for a mobile phone,” says to Dr Lim Sun Sun, Associate Professor and Deputy Head of the Department of Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore. “Parents need to understand the maturity of their own child, and assess it against their perceived needs for the child to have a mobile phone.”

She reminds us that we parents have to ask ourselves if we are comfortable with the child having a personal device that opens them to a whole world of possibilities in terms of accessing information, entertainment and communication. One point to note, she highlights, is to remember that once the device is personally owned by the child, imposing effective supervision is difficult.

Parental Guides for Children’s Devices

Before you hand a mobile phone over to your child, it helps to have a fixed plan in mind on how phone use must be managed.

You may have read about the mother wrote a terms-of-use contract for her son when she gave him a new mobile phone for Christmas.

Such do’s and don’ts may even be more important for curious younger children. This is especially so if you give your child a smartphone with data plan, as social media platforms continue to lower their official minimum age requirement.

A web-based study done last year revealed that 38 per cent of child users on Facebook are actually younger than the required minimum age of 13 years old. Some are even six years old or younger. Of course, some accounts are probably set up and managed by parents for their children. But you never know. It could help to download and set up a parental control app for your child’s smartphone so you can monitor their usage.

Mr Chua Hian Hou, Assistant General Manager of Corporate Communications of M1 Limited, understands parents’ dilemma. He says that M1 offers services that allow parents to manage the amount of time children can spend on their handsets, the type of applications they can install, and the websites they can visit. “These services, including Mobiflock and McAfee Safe Eyes, are available on all major mobile platforms including Android, iOS, Symbian and BlackBerry,” he adds.

SingTel has Locator Plus, an application which not only filters content, limits surfing time allocation, but also keep an eye on your loved one’s location.

Dr Lim suggests that parents either sign up their children on data plans that are restrictive, or ask their children to surrender their phones at the end of each day. She says: “Depending on your relationship with your child, explain to them why responsible mobile phone use is a requirement for them to continue to use their phone. Impress upon the child self-discipline in using their mobile phones.”

That, we reckon, would be the best way to start.

(See also: Best Parental Control Apps for your Child’s Smartphone)

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