Should children have mobiles?


It is not needed till it is really needed

A nephew, who was turning six, was asked as to what he wanted for his birthday. “A Blackberry would be great.” It was decided that he would get a punnet of blueberries and an apple instead. But it does point to an interesting issue. When should a child be given a mobile phone and/or be allowed to have one.

There has been some debate on the issue in Pakistani papers recently, especially with reference to the discussions in the Punjab Assembly regarding whether students should be allowed to have a mobile phone in classes, in schools as well as in colleges and universities.

There are a number of issues here that need to be untangled. For children, it is a decision of the parent and/or guardian as to when they should get a mobile. This definition of ‘children’ can be up to 18 or for as long as parents have control over their children. Though, of course, rather than a legalistic view a more consensual approach is preferable to addressing the issue. But for schools and universities, it is really the decision of the institutions in question as to whether they will allow students to carry mobiles into classes or not and as to whether students can keep the mobiles on during classes.

It seems to be, on the basis of practicality as well as on the notion of responsibility coming with being an adult that it makes sense not to allow students, up to high school (A ‘Levels or FA/FSc) to have mobiles in classes. They can possess mobiles but they should be asked to turn them off before classes begin in the morning and they should only be allowed to switch them on at the end of classes. Mobiles, with ability to chat and text, can be quite distractive, for the possessor and for the people around him/her, so they can be quite disruptive for the teaching process, both for the possessor as well as for the rest of the class. Up to high school students are still minors. They are more likely to be easily distracted than adults.

The world of a child becomes larger with age. Smaller children have a fewer people they usually interact with: mostly from within the household, family, and friends. As children grow they start moving in more circles, have relationships that involve people, among other things, at more of a distance. Mobiles are a means of communication. They become important as the need for communication increases. So, when children are in primary and middle school, given the limited circles they move in and the set of concerns that make them tick, they do not really need mobiles for most of their interaction. But as children go into high schools, the connections, to the people and the world, widen and should widen and then mobiles can make sense, if parents think so too, but there is still no need to have them switched on while they are in schools.

Some people have argued that safety concerns have prompted them to get mobiles for their children. But if you know your child is with people you trust, in the family or in the school, there is no need for a mobile even for safety reasons. It is only when children go out of restricted environments that mobiles might be needed. So this makes sense when children start to move around independently of their parents or of other trusted adults, but not before then.

As students reach university or post 18th birthday, it is up to them to decide whether to carry a mobile or not. Having taught at a university for a long time I can tell you that mobiles are still a distraction in class, which is why I always tell the students to switch them off before class or put them on silent, and used to come down hard on people who would forget to do that, but if a student still wants to chat unobtrusively while a class is going on, I would rather not waste my time on trying to catch her or even teach her, I would rather focus on others who might be in class to discuss more interesting things related to the subject of the class.

A lot of people might be tempted to buy mobiles for their children for the signal value they might have: to show to others how rich/advanced/progressive they are etc. But mobiles are not like other gadgets and/or objects that just signal class. Firstly, as mentioned, they can have significant negative effects on the learning of children and they can also exacerbate attention deficit like symptoms among children. But equally if not more importantly, there is a lot of talk and/or discussion on possible health effects of mobiles too. Some have suggested that close proximity to mobiles, for extended periods, can even cause cancer. Irrespective of the fact that evidence is not conclusive yet, it is true that mobiles, like any other such device, do generate strong electro-magnetic fields. Do you really want to expose your children, while growing, to this for extended periods? And especially when it might not really be needed. Children will keep this device pressed against their head, in their pockets close to their hearts or close to their genitals. Is this a risk that seems worth taking? I don’t think it is. But it is for parents to decide individually. We do stop, legally, the sale of cigarettes to children, and make other laws too for them that are paternalistic but we think are necessary for their own good, and as long as they are below 18, we think we are justified, in these instances, in making these laws. Given the possible effects of mobiles, should we not, by law or by the power vested in us by virtue of being parents, decide the issue for them?

In the end my nephew got a book. Hopefully he will get over the disappointment and read the book. But I see that a lot of parents are choosing to go the other way. It is, of course, their decision. I lean the other way and feel a mobile is not needed till it is really needed. This is especially the case given concerns about the harm they can cause. But given the variety in parental choices on the subject and where one person’s mobile has repercussions for others, in public spaces, like disruptions in classes, we should have stricter control over its use.

The writer is an Associate Professor of Economics at LUMS (currently on leave) and a Senior Advisor at Open Society Foundation (OSF). He can be reached at [email protected]


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