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Get a grip on the use of smartphones

Technology for kids can be a boon and a bane, but the trick is to prevent it from being abused

As parents, we both love and hate the smartphone.

On the one hand, it is the stuff of science fiction that we could only dream about in our youth.

On the other, it is a deadly glowing drug that we all struggle to stop looking at. We are always afraid that it will destroy our lives, as well as that of our children's.

The risks are real and deadly.

Will our children fail their exams if they keep playing games? Are they surfing porn in the toilet? What are they chatting about in their many WhatsApp groups? Are strangers baiting them online? What malware is about to trap them into financial blackmail? Are they taking questionable videos?

Putting a smartphone into the hands of children is not something to be sniffed at.

Many adults can't handle it, so why are parents happily giving primary school children smartphones as early as Primary 1?

The principal of my son's secondary school has repeatedly said to parents that he believes smartphones should be banned in school.

I cannot help but agree with him because I know the risks.

Yet both of us allow it to happen because we also know we cannot stop our children from being exposed to the technologies of today.

And as parents, we cannot micro-manage our children lest we all turn into nervous wrecks and, worse, ignorant Luddites.

Over the past 10 years since the first iPhone arrived, I have tried many approaches to this parenting problem for my kids (now aged 14 and 12).

It helps that I'm a big geek and tech enthusiast and a recovering smartphone addict.

I have a few practical approaches that might work for fellow parents.

NO MOBILE DATA PLANS

My children both use the Xiaomi Redmi 4A, a very capable budget smartphone that costs less than $180. It does everything a smartphone should, but I deliberately do not subscribe to data plans for the children.

Instead, the kids have to live with pre-paid SIM cards which come with little or no data access. They have no mobile broadband access unless they are at home or in a public Wi-Fi space.

Yes, this means they cannot get the latest WhatsApp messages or Facebook updates from their friends, or play online games. It also means they are not glued to the phone when they are crossing the street.

Sure, the kids can still play offline games, but at least I have reduced the stickiness of the news and chat stream. Any chat messages from their friends can wait.

I guess the kids will get mobile data access only when they start earning money.

NO PHONES IN BEDROOMS

The kids have to use their smartphones in the living room or at the dining table and cannot use their phones in their rooms. All of our smartphones are charged at the same place in one corner of the living room.

This is the same reason why the family computer has always been placed at the balcony and within full view of everyone. Everyone keeps one another's digital activities in check.

Of course, sometimes phones are sneaked into the toilet and I remind the kids what a germ fest that becomes.

And sadly, I have to remind myself too.

NO MOBILE GAMES DURING SCHOOL TERMS

This was a difficult decision I had to make after many angry parental lectures. Mobile games are so addictive, hours zip by before you realise what is happening.

Unless it is a school holiday, I get the kids to remove mobile game apps from their phones and I do random checks.

I do make some gaming concessions - they can still play games on the family iPad mini, or on the home computer and the PlayStation 4 in the living room.

KEEP THEM CONNECTED IN OTHER WAYS

Because I am not a total tyrant and I do not want my kids to grow up deprived of all digital content, I make sure they have access to all types of content, but on my terms.

For example, I have given them their own Spotify music accounts. Spotify Premium is inexpensive if you sign up for the family plan (About $15 monthly for six family members).

We also watch Netflix together in the living room, but I do worry if they watch R-rated television series on Netflix. Then again, I just explain the birds and the bees with a straight face and I know the kids probably know bawdier jokes from school.

Ultimately, I want them to know they are not cut off from the world of knowledge and entertainment, even though I do not give them the same phone privileges other children may enjoy.

We live in a world steeped in technology and we would be fools to stop our kids from mastering new tools and media platforms. The key thing is to avoid the abuse of technology.

As parents, we need to remember we have to be role models. If we spend all our time looking at a screen and we put a screen into our kids' hands without proper guidance, who is to blame for the consequences?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 30, 2017, with the headline 'Get a grip on the use of smartphones'. Print Edition | Subscribe