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.
Mehmudah Rehman is a Dubai-based freelancer.