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Of all the things to keep young children occupied, one of the least appropriate is surely a smartphone. Yet increasingly, Hong Kong parents are handing over the devices, believing them to be the perfect distraction. Doctors warn that doing so can lead to health problems, while child experts worry about the consequences in later life.
Such concerns should be enough for thoughts to turn to more traditional ways of keeping offspring occupied, yet increasingly, parents seem unaware of the risks. A Hong Kong Department of Health survey found that babies as young as one were being given smartphones to keep them calm and entertained. A total of 13.1 per cent of primary school pupils questioned spent more than three hours a day surfing the internet, a fivefold increase since the last survey in 2014.
Competition at school is fierce and parents instinctively introduce their children to technology at the earliest opportunity. There are no guidelines as to when they should show their sons or daughters how to use the internet or get them their own smartphone; they decide when they feel the time is right. But for all the benefits, there are also dangers. Beyond risks to bone, eye and interpersonal skill development for the extremely young, there is the possibility in older children of addiction that distracts from schoolwork, as well as exposure to pornography, online bullying and sex predators.
The internet offers access to powerful educational tools, a wealth of information and the ability to connect with friends. But the portability of smartphones also enables use without parental supervision.
The devices should only be given when the time and circumstances are right, and common sense should dictate that is when a child knows how to act responsibly. Given the health warnings from doctors, smartphones are not for babies and infants, and even with older children the internet and mobile devices should not be introduced without restrictions; starting off with internet parental controls and handsets with only phone and texting functions would be a good first step on the technology ladder.