Smartphone use: Risk, opportunity, or both?
Kids and smartphones: The topic has been doing the rounds for many years now, with the issue discussed time and again from different perspectives. Many see smartphone use among children and even adolescents as signaling the end of the culture of communication and find it disturbing, if not harmful. But are things really this bad? What are the consequences of smartphone use among children? Is there a positive side to this use, that perhaps even outweighs the negatives?
Smartphone use and consequences at various stages of development
Unbelievable, but true: Some kids have their own cellphone or smartphone right from the age of six. By the time they’re 10 years old, 67% of kids have one [available in German only] – increasing to 94% for teenagers.
Children use smartphones mainly to play games and watch videos. Adolescents, on the other hand, use them to check social networks, watch videos, chat, and research information for school.
You could say that nowadays many babies grow up with smartphones as the devices are everywhere right from the moment they’re born. Every moment is photographed and shared with friends and relatives – and every feeding time, ounce of weight gained, and diaper change is captured using an app. It starts to get really worrying if all this is also shared on social networks. While it is understandable that parents are proud of their kids, and that they want to share the joy about their offspring with friends and family, many do so without paying a second thought. In the worst case, these images could be used by pedophiles – a topic that is now so prevalent that even the police warn not to share certain images.
On the positive side, parents can encourage the healthy development of their kids using smartphones or the apps on them. For example, it can be really helpful if parents of very premature babies, children born with illnesses, or children with identified developmental disabilities document and record certain data. Information such as the amount of milk fed, weight development, and frequency of bowel movements can be invaluable to pediatricians, and can help strengthen parents’ health awareness. As is so often is the case, collecting the right amount of data is one of the biggest challenges – after all, where do you start and where do you stop? There is also evidence that parents’ smartphone use can cause feeding and sleep problems [available in German only] among babies, mainly because children have to share their parents’ attention with the digital device.
Opinions are split on the use of smartphones by parents particularly when children are very small. One side calls for them to be given up completely, fearing for the emotional development of babies. By contrast, the other side sees the smartphone as an opportunity for young parents not to loose all contact with the outside world. The truth must lie somewhere in between. A smartphone can be a powerful tool for parents to keep in touch, search for help and tips quickly, and keep track of their child’s development. But it can also quickly become a magnet for their attention, especially for vulnerable parents who are stressing about their newborn as the smartphone offers them a way to escape from everyday life.
Studies such as the BLIKK study see clear differences between those young kids who are frequent smartphone users and those who aren’t. Linguistic development in particular is disrupted and it can lead to concentration problems among children of elementary school age. On top of this, children who are unsupervised in their use of tablets and smartphones run the risk of finding content that is not intended for them. Particularly on platforms such as YouTube, there are many videos that may seem child-friendly at first glance, but which do not offer any educational value – and in the worst case even contain harmful content. With their appealing thumbnails and colorful comic styles, these types of content in particular are really good at magically drawing kids in.
Kids spend on average 30 minutes playing on their smartphone [available in German only] right from when they’re just two to four years old – and that’s all without any knowledge or skills in how to use media. That said, there are apps available for young kids over the age of three that are age-appropriate and which can encourage the development of linguistic skills, coordination, and concentration. It’s well worth looking out for well-known developers in this regard. There are already a host of beautifully designed apps for popular kids’ cartoon series as well as Sesame Street apps. But here too, the child should never be left alone sitting with the smartphone. Supervision is always recommended, and parents should accompany their children on their journey of discovery of the digital world.
On top of this, all popular smartphones and tablets can be made safer using parental control settings or apps which enable you to restrict access to only certain apps as well as limit usage times. Doing so means little ones can’t use any other functions. And if these settings don’t offer enough control, you’ll find a huge range of parental control apps in the app stores.
An increasing number of children are suffering from concentration and attention deficit disorders. They can barely keep themselves occupied, and often use smartphones and tablets as a constant companion. Many pediatricians view this development with great concern and attribute some developmental disorders to excessive media consumption.
In children up to the age of six, there is an increased incidence of motor hyperactivity and language development disorders when they consume media frequently.
Teenagers and young adults
As soon as they hit the teenage years, social networks become interesting. Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, and WhatsApp are an inescapable part of school yard life. Practically every adolescent has a smartphone, and is glued to it – almost constantly. Besides chatting with friends and fellow class mates, entertainment ranks high up on the list. YouTube videos and Snaps are watched and shared – often without any filters. For parents it’s virtually impossible to control what their own kids are actually watching, as quite often its simply too much for parents to do.
For adolescents, the positive side of using a smartphone is easily explained. It allows them to communicate easily with class mates, and helps them search for information. Most school classes have WhatsApp groups – some including teachers – where they discuss homework and what’s going on at school. For these groups in particular, stringent moderation and usage rules are essential. While such a group should never become an ordinary group for chatting and sharing, in reality this is very difficult to enforce.
(Adolescents with special interests or life circumstances can easily find other people in a similar situation. They get support, encouragement, and in doing so can discover a whole new world.)
Constant availability means people are highly exposed, with cyberbullying leaving many adolescents with mental disorders. One in three teens between the ages of 12 and 19 say that they themselves have experienced cyberbullying or have witnessed it.
According to a recent study [available in German only] by the German health insurer DAK-Gesundheit and the German Center for Addiction Issues, 10,000 children and adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 are now dependent on social networks. The study also reveals that in terms of social network dependency, there is a 4.6% higher risk of developing depression.
Parents and smartphones
The discussion about media and smartphone use typically only revolves around children and adolescents, with often no attention paid to smartphone use by parents.
This also has a direct impact on kids if their parents prefer to play with their smartphones instead of their newborns. Babies and young kids who do not feel safe and secure may be at risk of developing emotional disorders later in life. They are less able to engage with others and thus more prone to become loners. Many children respond jealously to the smartphone when it receives more attention from their parents than they do. Of course, it’s hard to avoid using a smartphone in this day and age. Particularly for work, a certain degree of accessibility is often required. But while the occasional email or phone call is of course not an issue, if you notice that your own child resents your smartphone then you should really evaluate and rethink how you use it.
Once again, there’s an app to help with that. A large selection of apps allow you to record and better control the use of smartphones. They show right down to the minute which apps were used and for how long, and how often you unlock your device.
The Auerbach Foundation
Avira also sees a need for more information on this topic and works very closely with the Auerbach Foundation that has dedicated itself to social projects. One topic of the foundation’s work is the promotion of healthy media use among children and adults. The aim is to create an awareness of media consumption and to draw attention to the opportunities and risks. Among its activities in this area, the Auerbach Foundation has developed a mini book series [available in German only] on the healthy use of smartphones and the like. In this series, the two protagonists, Paula & Max, experience exciting everyday stories around the use of smartphones.
The preventative smartphone bed [available in German only] from the Auerbach Foundation is another way to show children at an early stage the significance of a smartphone and the fact that it does not have to be switched on 24/7. This way, you can show and introduce youngsters from a very young age how to use a smartphone responsibly and in moderation.
Digital life-savers are another area close to the Auerbach Foundation and Avira’s heart. Smartphone apps really can be life-savers, which is why the Auerbach Foundation is supporting the development and use of apps such as NeoApp. This app allows parents of children born with illnesses to log specific development steps, with this information helping to strengthen parents’ health awareness. By means of an integrated digital diary, parents can record their feelings and emotions – a process that can help many parents of children born with illnesses come to terms with difficult life situations.