When should kids get a phone?

Oo Gin Lee is a father of three school-going children and a former tech editor of The Straits Times. In this instalment of a bi-monthly series produced in collaboration with Singtel, he looks at when parents should give their child a smartphone

My eldest daughter was 12 when she took her first public bus ride on her own. It was her first day at her new secondary school.

A few days before the New Year, my wife and I had spent a full morning rehearsing the commute with her. We walked from our home to the bus stop, wrote down the four buses that she could take, took one of them and walked her to her school. We then did the reverse and guided her through the return trip. We did this twice.

When the day of reckoning arrived, my daughter took the right bus - but in the wrong direction.

It was then that we realised that our sheltered daughter did not even know that there were parallel bus services running in opposite directions. Thankfully, she figured out that she was going the wrong way and mustered enough courage to ask the bus driver for help. She got off the bus, crossed the road and took the right bus back. But when she got to the bus stop near her school, she was so terrified of getting lost again that she decided to get off the bus and walked the full familiar 2.5km trek home.

I cannot recall now why our daughter did not call us when she was lost, even though she already had an Android smartphone. But she was a newbie and had not discovered Google Maps. After the incident, I spent hours showing her the wonders of Google Maps and how she could be anywhere in Singapore and never be afraid of getting lost - as long as she had enough battery power on her smartphone and a fully loaded ez-link card.

I learnt my lesson three years ago. When my second daughter hit Secondary 1 last month, I had to make only one guided trip with her and she has already become an independent commuter and Google Maps maestro.

Giving a child his or her first smartphone is a tough decision for any parent. Fear of them accessing smut and other inappropriate content, getting addicted to video games, over-indulging in social media, being cyberbullied or receiving scam calls from strangers is real in the digital age.

Parental control apps such as Qustodio can reduce some of these risks (see sidebar). Qustodio offers Web content filtering, safe search, app control, usage scheduling, location tracking and more.

A survey of 180 respondents by The Asian Parents Forum, commissioned by Singtel in 2016, found:

• 32 per cent of parents believed that the right age to give their child a mobile plan is 13 (see chart below)

• 72 per cent of respondents would give their child a feature (keypad) phone as opposed to 27 per cent who would give their child a smartphone

• 51 per cent of the respondents said they were prepared to give their child a mobile line with mobile data

I mulled over this issue for years and, like many parents, did not want to give my kids a smartphone until it was necessary. The question is: when is the right time?

When my eldest daughter turned 10, I had to give her a phone because she started taking the school bus. I mulled over my choice of a phone for a long time before finally settling on a feature phone. The only goal at that time was to be able to call her when she was enroute home and, as such, I did not think a smartphone was necessary. It was only when she turned 13 that I upgraded it to a smartphone.

There were several factors that influenced my decision to finally let go. First was the need for WhatsApp. From the upper primary level, many kids have already formed WhatsApp chat groups to keep in touch with their schoolmates. Some of these groups are for social purposes, but often these are also the places where they check with one another on schoolwork.

It is the same with parents. When my youngest started Primary 1 this year, I was amazed by how prevalent WhatsApp usage has become. On the first day of school, a few eager parents had already started a parents-only WhatsApp group to share information about homework, class gatherings and other school matters. By the time the kids reach Secondary 1, I feel it works against them if they are missing out on important social dynamics without WhatsApp access.

  • Surf School

  • Singtel Surf School promotes cyber fun, safety and education.

    As part of this initiative, Singtel is offering a parental control app, Qustodio, at an exclusive rate of $5.90 a month for use on five devices (with no contract).

    Enjoy free three months with no contract with Singtel for a limited time.

    Here are some of the features of Qustodio:

    • Connects multiple devices and accounts to a unified Web dashboard for easy parental monitoring • Works on PC, Mac, iOS and Android • Web filtering automatically blocks inappropriate content from your child • Safe Search hides inappropriate results when the child makes keyword searches in Google and YouTube • You can schedule the hours and days when the child can have access to the Internet on the phone and/or the PC • You can block specific apps from running if you feel the child is spending too much time on them • Location tracking lets you find the last location of your child's phone • Panic mode lets the child hit an SOS button which triggers an alert that is sent to your preset e-mail or phone number, with the last known location of the device

The second key factor was instant access to Google. I want my kids to be independent learners and having constant access to Google and the Internet is necessary for them if they are to learn about the world that they live in. There are also many useful apps that many kids will need, including dictionaries, Chinese handwriting-recognition apps and access to news sites.

But for me, the deciding factor really was about commuting. I have always been a protective father. My wife and I ferried our girls everywhere they went.

One day, when my eldest was in Primary 6, I was caught in a traffic jam on the way to her school and we were terribly late. Instead of waiting, I asked her to alight along the main road and walk about 100m to her school. She was terrified and did not dare to even leave the car.

That was when I decided I had to find a way to help her become independent. The decision to "let go" was made easier because of the availability of the smartphone and apps such as Google Maps and My Transport (which tells you bus arrival times and routes). These have become more than just navigation apps - they are tools to help our children gain the confidence to be independent.



    Tell us how your family handled this issue (in not more than 300 words) and win a set of three annual Qustodio licences from Singtel. Five sets will be given out at the end of this series for selected entries, which may be published in The Sunday Times. Send your entries, with the subject header "Family & Tech", to stlife@sph.com.sg

For concerned parents, there are no easy answers to when is the time to let a child own a smartphone. For me, it has become the time when I want them to be able to commute by themselves, which, in my family, is when the child is in Secondary 1. The dangers of inappropriate content, usage addiction, scam calls and cyberbullying still exist, but, as parents, we will have to learn to trust our children, do our homework on tools available in the market, such as Qustodio, and cut the digital umbilical cord.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 25, 2018, with the headline 'When should kids get a phone?'. Subscribe