The Smartphone – gift or joint project?

by Dr Eliane Perret, remedial teacher and psychologist

If we take a look at the social changes of recent decades, digitalisation is certainly one of the most significant influencing factors. Originally intended for scientific exchange, digital devices now permeate our lives to a great extent. Although they were not intended and designed for children and young people when first created, these are now confronted with them in private life and at school. The following contribution is intended to stimulate reflection on how we can enable our next generation to use digital devices in an emancipated way, and as to our task and responsibility as adults.

I recently had a conversation with a colleague about our school students. As is so often the case with our children and young people today, we ended up discussing their often excessive and problematic use of digital devices; how and when they should be accessible to our children. My colleague was currently considering whether she should provide her now 13-year-old son with a smartphone instead of his mobile phone without internet access. What she told me made me think.

“Actually, we had planned …”

“Actually, we had planned not to buy a smartphone for our son until he turned 14. But you know how things go sometimes. He has a lot of charm and he can apply his energies and arguments convincingly and skilfully to something if he wants to have it. And that’s how it also went this time. Persistently and slightly reproachfully, he kept telling me that all his friends had a smartphone – all except him. What position was I to take on that? My husband and I want to fulfil our duty of digital care for our children. Was our son afraid of not noticing something (supposedly) important and did he feel (rightly?) excluded among his peers – FOMO, fear of missing out, as it is called in Neo-German? After all, we live in the media age; I can’t get past that, that was clear to me. The question for me was therefore no longer whether a smartphone is good or bad, but whether a child already has the necessary mental maturity to make good use of the possibilities of this device.”

On the road on WhatsApp,
TikTok, SnapChat, Youtube etc.

To me, my colleague’s assessment seemed very differentiated, and I found the last question in particular worthy of consideration. Almost all my pupils already have a smartphone, even the lower grade children. They use WhatsApp, TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube, often for many hours a week. This repeatedly results in border crossings and arguments that then go over into school and disrupt our joint learning. The other day we had a case of bullying to sort out, which had essentially happened online. During a recent radio broadcast, Professor Françoise Alsaker, the pioneer in mobbing research, had rightly pointed out the importance of social media platforms as factors causing and perpetuating bullying. I was therefore eager to hear what decision my colleague had come to.

Important considerations

“So our son was desperate for a smartphone. Well, he knows that when he wants to enforce a wish, he often has an easier job of it with me than with his father. His charm can be irresistible. However, it was clear that my husband and I would decide together. We carefully considered whether our son was mature enough. And had we given him the knowledge and social values he would need to use a smartphone properly? Did he have a sincere interest in his fellow human beings and in the world and the necessary fellow feeling that would enable him to navigate the net critically and with consideration for others? We knew that children do not acquire media competence by using electronic devices; it has to be laid in the family. Were we a role model for him in using our own digital devices? During dinner and at night, the mobile phones were switched off and placed in a box in the cloakroom, and we were not available. From time to time we would take a media-free weekend. We were therefore in agreement that if we were really to provide our son with a smartphone, then only with clear rules”.
  Had all the parents of our students also given such consideration to the subject, I wondered. According to the JAMES 2018 study, 94% of young people in Switzerland have a profile on at least one social network.
  In January 2020 there were 10.44 million mobile phone connections and 4.5 million social media users in Switzerland. How many of these were children and young people? Most know very well how to use social media platforms, but media literacy means more than typing and wiping. My colleague continued:

A smartphone – a gift?

“We remembered a theme night on digital media that we had attended at our son’s school. It had been some time ago, but despite technical progress, the basic statements still made sense to us. ‘Can you even give your child a mobile phone as a present?’ the speaker asked us at the time. How surprised we and most other parents were that this was not possible. Yes, we could give the device. But to make it work, a contract has to be signed, and our son was too young for that. So his smartphone would be registered to me or my husband, depending on who stored his personal data and activated the SIM card. Our son was not the contact person for the contract with the telephone company either, because he could only sign this from the age of 18. Of course, there are now various ways of circumventing these regulations with prepaid cards and combination packages. But we wanted to develop an open and honest solution with our son. That means we would lend our son the smartphone. Legally and if necessary also financially, however, we would bear the full responsibility.

Loan with contract

At that parents’ evening, the media educator had advised us to sign a contract with the young smartphone user, in which the conditions for borrowing the device were set out in advance. To be sure, how many parents will have used this possibility? He had also provided us with a model contract, which we now retrieved from the bottom of the drawer. But then we found a very appealing site on the Internet that helped us to write such a contract. We involved our son in the further considerations and drafted our contract together with him. This was a first joint project and there was much to discuss. It was about the careful use of the smartphone, time regulations, financial aspects, behaviour and language on the net, downloading apps and websites that are taboo for him. The smartphone would also be switched off and deposited in our common mobile phone box during study time and at night. So one thing was made clear: If he was to have a smartphone, then only under these conditions! He had to know: Everything he would do with his smartphone, he would do in our name, the name of his parents, or at least the one of us to whom the phone number was to be registered. We would bear full legal responsibility, for example in the event of a complaint for insulting, bullying, sexting, etc. We therefore also had the right to see at all times what he was doing on his smartphone. Our son had to accept this and to understand that the device did not allow privacy and confidentiality. It was not an electronic diary. He was to make appointments for important talks and confidential exchanges. We also wanted him to continue to be tracked by us and not to ignore our calls. Furthermore, he would have to contribute to the expenses with his pocket money. No simple task for our often somewhat rebellious son! He was understandably a bit dismayed and took a lot of time to read the contract once more and very carefully, because he knew that we would be consistent. Then he signed it.”

The unpleasant general terms and conditions

My colleague and her husband had made their decision. Their son would get his smartphone. “We bought a used device in a second-hand mobile phone shop. Our son screwed up his nose a bit, since his dream would have been an iPhone 11 (he would even have waited a while to get an iPhone 12). We suspected that with this, he hoped to make an impression on his colleagues. From then on, my husband, who was more technically adept, took the lead. The first thing to be discussed was the general terms and conditions, the terms of use.
  They were written in difficult to read legalese, but this was a contract. When I saw ‘my boys’ sitting on the sofa together for two evenings, ploughing through the text of the contract, I thought about how many times I had clicked on ‘accept’ when downloading an app together with its terms and conditions, without having read a word and knowing what I had said ‘yes’ to. I later asked my husband whether this made sense; without accepting the terms and conditions, the use of the mobile phone would not be possible anyway. His reply stopped me short, ‘Should we teach our son to sign contracts without reading them? A rental, employment or purchase contract? Don’t we have a responsibility there?’ he said.”

Data protection – but how?

“When the time came, our son naturally wanted to first of all install WhatsApp so as to initiate a group chat in his class. But stop, when would that be possible? He was still too young. And even though in most cases the providers do not check the personal details of the user, we did not want to encourage him to lie and cheat. Then ‘my two boys’ dealt with the data protection rules of the platform. What happens to the data entered? They may be passed on to third parties and used for personalised advertising. This was another lesson in media competence. Were there any alternatives? They came across the Swiss provider Threema, who could do everything WhatsApp had to offer; there was no data trail and all communication was encrypted end-to-end. It was not an easy task to convince my son’s friends to switch from WhatsApp to Threema because ‘everyone is on WhatsApp …’ But in the end it made sense to them that they didn’t want to get into any future trouble with posts they were posting at best in youthful exuberance. The traces on the Internet are indelible, and there is no control over what happens to data published on the net. They could easily afford the small one-off payment for the new social media platform and they did without the free offer from WhatsApp. So you see, there were and still are a number of hurdles to overcome”.

Having the necessary mental maturity

The conversation with my colleague stayed on my mind for a long time. How would I have decided? And what does “media literacy” actually mean, a buzzword that is used inflationarily and even demanded in the curricula today? In the meantime, “media and information technology” has been integrated as a school subject. However, it is often reduced to learning how to operate the equipment. Very little importance is attributed to all the other questions connected with their use. Do school children have the necessary mental maturity to assess how they should or should not use the equipment? Are they capable of self-critically assessing how they move in the digital space and what risks they should not take? Do they consider what psychological, social, ethical and even legal consequences their actions might have? And do they have a sense of what the protection of their private and intimate sphere means? Often not even we adults are aware of these coherencies. However, these competences can only be acquired in real life and not in virtual life.

Driving a car in kindergarten?

Of course, digital devices are part of everyday working life today. But does that mean that even small children have to be able to handle them independently? Then I remembered a remark made at the above-mentioned theme evening that my colleague had remembered. “At that parents’ evening, one of the speaker’s arguments made sense to me. He gave the example of driving a car: Of course, cars are part of our everyday life, and we do not deny that fact because our children can only get their driving licence at the age of 18. But we don’t let them drive, we take them with us in the car with the necessary safety precautions. With us, they learn for the first time how to behave in traffic, what legal regulations there are and what dangers can be associated with it”.

Careful guidance

Right, I thought. The situation is similar with internet-enabled devices. Why not explore together with the child which possibilities might be useful for us? My colleague had taken this advice from the media educator to heart and showed her son, for example, how to use a tutorial to learn how to do handicrafts or repair a device, how to use a dictionary or learn about a subject and how to counteract unwanted advertising. So he already knew a lot and had some previous knowledge and experience important for the use of a smartphone. But it will still be a joint challenge to handle it well.

Performing the duty of (digital) care

In these areas we adults are ahead of the children. We have more life experience and can better understand the consequences of our actions. We can show them that the Internet should not be used mindlessly, and that the protection of our private and intimate sphere is an important asset in human coexistence. We should also be able to deal with assigning the appropriate place to these devices in our lives. Unfortunately, however, the timewise use of devices is becoming an increasing problem, especially for young people. It is not without reason that media addiction has been included in the DSM 5, the Handbook of Psychiatric Diseases, as an Internet gaming disorder, and corresponding therapy offers are on the rise. So any parent providing his or her child with an Internet device and not bothering about it afterwards is obviously violating his or her duty of (digital) care. Providing a smartphone and other electronic devices means starting a joint project.

“Digitally naïve” and “digital native”

Often our children and young people are slightly admiringly referred to as “digital natives”. But aren’t they often rather “digitally naïve” through no fault of their own? It is true they have a certain lightness of touch and try out all kinds of things on digital devices – but without any awareness of possible personal risks. They often try to fill a relationship void in digital anonymity (which would be a social issue!). Many of them reach for an electronic device at the slightest hint of boredom – a creativity killer par excellence! Here too, my colleague gave me a tip. To help her son get started in programming and to make today’s technical possibilities accessible – which might indeed be useful for his professional future – he received a programmable Lego brick from Lego Mindstorms as a birthday present, in addition to his Stokys metal construction kit. This not only enabled him to acquire further technical skills, but also gave him his first experience in robotics. This also was a joint project of father and son. •


The following sources and personalities accompanied me while writing:

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