UAE: At what age should children get smartphones?

Global study links mental wellbeing of young adults to when they got their first phone as a child

by

Nasreen Abdulla

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Published: Sat 27 May 2023, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Tue 30 May 2023, 4:05 PM

A new global study has revealed that young adults who got a smartphone when they were 18 years or older had better mental wellbeing as adults.

The percentage of females experiencing mental health challenges decreased from 74 per cent for those who received their first smartphone at age 6, to 46 per cent for those who received it at age 18. For males, the percentage declined from 42 per cent at age 6 to 36 per cent at age 18.The study by Sapien Labs surveyed 27,969 respondents between the ages of 18 and 24.


"These findings suggest that there are long term improvements in mental wellbeing for each year of delay in getting a smartphone during childhood" said Chief Scientist Tara Thiagarajan. "It's important that we continue to study this relationship and work to develop effective policies and interventions.”

However, UAE-based experts say that in a world that is becoming increasingly digital and centred on devices, children need to be given their first smartphones while in their teens. “I usually recommend that from 13 yrs or above, [they] can have their own phone,” said UAE-based digital wellness coach Anisa Ismail. “12 years and under, shouldn’t have their own phone but can have supervised access to one.”


According to Anisa, teaching children to use their devices responsibly is akin to teaching them how to brush their teeth and requires patience. “Having a phone is a responsibility, one of which should be taught to young children,” she said. "The example I like to give is when children are young, parents teach them skills such as tying their shoelaces, or brushing their teeth. It is a tedious process, and one that takes time, but eventually the skill is mastered. The same skill of how to best use a phone, needs to be taught.”

She said that there should be some basic ground rules when giving youngsters devices. “The reason for the phone should be clear, the apps downloaded should have a purpose, and the daily limit of phone usage shouldn’t exceed 2 hours per day,” she said.

Variables matter

The right age to give youngsters their first phone depends on their developmental age, what the phone will be used for, if there will be any parental controls on it and the level of supervision, according to Dr Lauren Smith, Clinical Psychologist at Sage Clinics.

“In our opinion the introduction of smartphones to children is a decision that requires thoughtful consideration and proactive parenting,” said Dr. Lauren. “As mental health professionals, we advocate for a balanced approach that encourages responsible phone usage, open communication, and active involvement from parents.”

Although local statistics is not available, a 2021 report suggests that 31 per cent of 8-year-olds in the United States own a smartphone, increasing to 71 per cent of 12-year-olds and 91 per cent of 14-year-olds.

Checks and balances

It is extremely important for parents to set ground rules when giving children devices, say experts. “The most important thing parents can share is transparency and setting appropriate rules,” said Anisa. “As long as children can understand [the rules], there is no reason why they wouldn’t have a healthy relationship with their phones.”

Dr Wafa Saoud, Clinical Psychologist at Sage Clinics agreed with Anisa. “When giving children their first phone, it is crucial that parents take measures to promote responsible and safe usage,” she said. Dr Wafa and Dr Lauren shared a checklist for giving youngsters a phone:

1. Establish clear guidelines and boundaries for phone usage, such as setting time limits and identifying technology-free zones.

2. Educate children about online safety, including the importance of protecting personal information, avoiding sharing inappropriate content, and understanding the potential consequences of their digital actions.

3. Installing parental control software to monitor and restrict access to age-inappropriate content and agreeing regular supervision and what this entails with your child.

4. Encourage open and ongoing communication with children about their digital experiences, addressing concerns, and fostering healthy online habits.

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