Have you ever wondered what your child is up to on their mobile phone? Do you know whom they are exchanging text messages and photos with on WhatsApp? More importantly, are you aware that your child is at high risk of mobile phone addiction?
The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) estimates that one in every three internet users worldwide is a child, and in its State of the World’s Children 2017: Children in a Digital World report in December 2017, it notes that governments and the private sector have done little to protect children from the perils of the online world.
AFRICAN TEENS LEAST CONNECTED
Although the report suggests that African children and adolescents are the least connected in the world — with only 40 percent being online compared to 96 per cent in Europe — local experts are already getting worried about the pervasiveness of mobile phone addiction among children and adolescents, especially in urban youth.
From their interactions with children and parents, experts now believe there is reason for alarm over the use of mobile phones and technology among Kenyan teenagers.
Mr Mbutu Kariuki, a developmental psychologist who works closely with children, says he has encountered tens of teenagers, particularly those from well-off backgrounds, battling unhealthy relationships with their phones and gadgets.
“Parents are complaining that their children are becoming antisocial because of their mobile phones,” says Mr Kariuki. “They fight to make them eat, do homework, shower, or even sleep. Some children even sneak gadgets into their blankets and play games throughout the night.”
The Unicef report notes that smartphones are increasingly promoting the “bedroom culture” where young children are taking their mobile phones to use them privately without the chaperoning of adults.
Dr Catherine Mutisya says the peer pressure of owning a phone, especially among urban children and adolescents, has caused parents to buy smartphones for their children “because other children have phones”.
This has resulted to increased screen-time for children, which accounts for time spent in front of their computers, phones and television.
The screen-time spikes during the holidays when children from boarding schools over-compensate for the months they have spent away from their mobile phones.
“Parents are complaining that it is affecting the socialisation of their children, homework, study and sleep. Worse is that children are engaging in ‘sexting’, where they are sharing nude pictures and messages with others,” says Dr Mutisya.
While the conversation around mobile phone addiction is only just picking momentum in the country, Western nations are taking serious measures to prevent and address it.
Earlier this month Apple Inc, which manufactures iPhones, iPads and Mac computers, was asked to be more vigilant in addressing mobile phone addiction among children.
Two of its top shareholders — Jana Partners and California Pension Investor — asked Apple to develop elaborate software that would allow parents to put a rein on the mobile phone use of their children.
Such decisions have been informed by extensive research carried out in the West that proves children are indeed addicted or nearly addicted to their mobile phones and social media.
COMMON SENSE MEDIA
A 2016 study by Common Sense Media found that one in every two teenagers feels addicted to their mobile phone, while almost 60 percent of parents feel their teenagers are addicted to their phones. The research uncovered a great deal about the mobile phone habits of children; from the frequency of checking their phones, to the uncontrollable urge to keep refreshing their social media timelines to check for new updates, to getting distracted from school work.
Similarly, a special CNN report dubbed Being 13 showed that teenagers spend a great deal of their time lurking on social media, with those addicted checking their phones as often as 100 times in a day.
The story also revealed that teenagers were likely to suffer from social comparison and feeling sorry for themselves after comparing their lives to the (seemingly) glamorous lives of fellow teenagers.
Dr Mutisya advises parents to talk to their children about the perils and implications of smartphones, and to help children understand that what they see on social media is not a true reflection of their friend’s lives.
“Children are not mature enough to know that what people post on social media is only the good side of life,” she says. “They need to be told that what people post on social media is not what their life is all about, that they also have low moments.”