Children on mobile phones
Children on mobile phones [Illustrative picture] Image Credit: Pexels


  • ​​​​​​Two out of three parents (66 per cent) in the UAE admit they are worried about setting a bad example by spending too much time on mobile devices.
  • Children in the UAE desire mobile screen time more than candy or sweets.
  • More than half of parents in the UAE (52 per cent) say mobile screen time affects their child’s quality of sleep.

Dubai: Children in the UAE desire mobile screen time more than candy or sweets according to Norton’s “My First Device Report”.

Children in the UAE spend more time in front of a mobile screen than playing outdoors, with more than one-quarter of parents saying their child or children spend more time than the parents spend online.

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Surveying nearly 7,000 parents across Europe and the Middle East with children aged between five and sixteen, the report explores the challenges the first generation of “digital-first” parent’s face. These children have never known a world without smartphones and tablets. Therefore, today’s parents are embarking on a new frontier, questioning the right age at which their child should be exposed to screen time or have their “own” device, whilst also examining their personal habits and potential effects on their children.

Children on their phones
[Illustrative picture] Image Credit: GN Archives

Gulf News spoke to mothers across the UAE to find out when they think would be the right time to give their child a mobile phone

“Never” Sara El Hawary, mum to Adam aged one, told Gulf News. “These days, there are other ways to know where your child is and to communicate with them. There are these GPS smart watches, that allow you to monitor your child's location in real time, and even call them and for them to call you. That way I can stay in touch with him and he can call me whenever he needs anything. In general, I don’t like when children use screens. Sometimes it is necessary when you have no other solution to distract them and it’s usually during meal times” she said.

On average across the UAE, children spend close to two and half hours of their leisure time on mobile devices every day, close to an hour longer than the average amount of time spent playing outdoors. Parents themselves feel guilty about the amount of time they spend online in front of their children, which they believe influences the children’s behaviour.

Little boy on his phone
[Illustrative picture] Image Credit: GN Archives

“Unfortunately, my child needs screen time, or else I could never get anything done at home. Sometimes that’s what it takes to calm them down and get them to sit quietly” said Haneen Majdalawi, a mum to Yassin, aged three, told Gulf News. “I feel really bad about it, but sometimes parenting is tough and screen time is a necessary treat.”

Parents have real concerns about the potential negative impact of device usage. More than half of the parents in the UAE say mobile screen time affects their child’s quality of sleep. Parents also worry about the detrimental impact devices have on energy levels, social skills and mental health.

Little boy on his mobile phone
[Illustrative picture] Image Credit: GN Archives

Abbey Michelle Urbanski, Mum to Zachy, age four, thinks that right now, her child should not have access to his own mobile phone. “While my son is little and I know his exact whereabouts at all times (he is either at school, with me or a relative) I do not see him having a need for a phone. I can only envision him having one once he starts to venture out by himself around age 11+. When he’ll get the bus to school without me, play out with friends away from home, and walk home alone. It’ll be for his safety and my peace of mind, since while I may not always know his exact whereabouts (like I do right now), we’ll still have contact with each other at all times.”

Most parents do try to enforce rules around screen time but admit that they may be their own worst enemy, as they feel they fail in setting good examples for their children. One in two parents across the region say they spend too much time online, and in the UAE more than half feel guilty about the amount of time they spend browsing the web, the third highest country across EMEA. More than half of parents in the UAE admit their own children reprimand them for spending too much time online or at inappropriate times and two in three said they are worried about setting a bad example for their child.

Kids playing on their smarphones
[Illustrative picture] Image Credit: GN Archives

“We try to not use our own devices in front of our daughter, but it can be a challenge” Vanessa Fernandes, mum to a little girl, aged two, told Gulf News. “Kids today are already surrounded by gadgets all the time and if you look at the amount of information they are exposed to it can make a parent nervous. I would look to give my daughter a phone maybe by the time she's 10, but I don't know how the world will change by then. Also it's about allowing her access to what's important than everything that's available online. She will only have her own phone when she is independent enough to go out on her own. The mobile would be useful to keep in touch and for emergencies” Vanessa said.

Children in the UAE ranked 5th in the world at spending the most time in front of mobile devices, with over 25 minutes less than those in the UK. The UK topped the charts with British children who use their phones for nearly three hours per day. Spanish children spent the least amount of time on mobile devices at only 30 minutes less than their peers.

Boys chatting on mobile phones
[Illustrative picture] Image Credit: GN archives

These concerns are only growing as children get their own devices at increasingly younger ages. Research shows that parents are giving in to pester power, as on average children in the UAE are getting their first device at seven years old (three years younger than parents feel their children should be allowed one

Interestingly, the report also found the level of strictness increases among younger parents. Those groups were more likely to be strict compared to older parents. Sara Al Shurafa, mum to Nai, aged 2, told Gulf News

“I won’t give my child a phone until she is 13. It will be a basic phone not a smart phone with a data package. It’s just for security reasons. I consider myself strict when it comes to technology. My daughter has one hour of screen time a day and it’s only to watch children educational cartoons. She has no internet access whatsoever. The whole idea of a phone is for security rather than to stay social with her friends." Sara said.

Despite the challenges, parents in the UAE are the keenest to manage their child’s device use, but many feel at a loss as to how to do it. Almost three out of four parents in the UAE say they want to set limits and parental controls on connected devices, the highest number across EMEA, but they don’t know how to go about doing this.

However, more than half of the parents in the UAE believe mobile technology and mobile devices can help foster children’s problem solving and learning skills, among the highest, with almost three-quarters saying that children being in charge of their own devices teaches them responsibility.

Little girl on her phone
[Illustrative picture] Image Credit: GN Archives

“Modern parenting isn’t easy,” says Nick Shaw, vice president and general manager, Norton, EMEA. “The old challenges of getting children to eat their greens, get to bed on time and do their homework are all still there, but there is an added layer of technology that parents have to navigate. Unlike their children, most parents today didn’t grow up with connected devices like smartphones and tablets, which leaves them struggling with making and enforcing screen time rules.”

Here are some practical tips to help parents better manage device use:

Establish house rules and guidelines: these can include setting limits to screen time, the type of content a child accesses online or the appropriate tone of language to use online. These rules should vary depending on your children’s age, maturity and understanding of the risks they could face online.

Encourage your children to go online in communal spaces: it's about striking a balance where they don’t feel that you are constantly looking over their shoulder and don’t feel like they need to hide to go online. It will help put your mind at ease about what they are doing, and they’ll know they can come to you if they are confused, frightened or concerned.

Maintain an open and ongoing dialogue with your children on Internet use and experiences, including cyberbullying. For helpful information on talking with your children about digital dangers.

Encourage kids to think before they click: whether they're looking at online video sites, receiving an unknown link in an email or even browsing the web, remind your child not to click on links, which may take them to dangerous or inappropriate sites. Clicking unknown links is a common way people get viruses or reveal private and valuable information about themselves.

Look out for harmful content: from websites to apps, games and online communities, your kids have access to a lot of content that can affect them both positively and negatively. Using smart family security and parental web safety tools, as well as the built-in security settings in your browsers, can help the whole family stay safe.

Discuss the risks of posting and sharing private information, videos, and photographs –Especially on social media.

Be a good role model. Children are likely to imitate their parents' behaviour, so lead by example.

Use a robust and trusted security software solution, to help keep your children and devices protected against malicious websites, viruses, phishing attempts and other online threats designed to steal personal and financial information.