For better or worse, it’s not uncommon for children to own a phone. A life coach shares how her kid learned to live without it

I often think about my childhood, which was free of phones, devices and the uncontrollable urge that today’s kids have to be connected. I was definitely not a savvy kid, and even as an adult, navigating Netflix, HBO and Disney Plus is embarrassingly challenging. I don’t like keeping up with technology and particularly detest Google Home and Alexa, which feel like an utter intrusion into my life. My home is, unsurprisingly, quite gadget-free, and I like it. But I do feel like I am at a crossroads when it comes to the significant role technology plays in the future for my children. A part of me believes that the rest of the world can code and design apps, so my kids can be creative in other ways. Or am I holding them back?

For my daughter Lara, her 12th birthday was a highly anticipated one: it was when she would receive her first phone. She couldn’t wait to be connected to her friends and feel like a real pre-teen. Over the years, she had some issues with her iPad where she would exceed her screentime limit or hide the device under her bed; that was followed by the typical consequences of having her usage of the device restricted. Lara was one of the last in her group of friends to get her own phone, so she couldn’t wait for December to roll around.

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As we got closer to her birthday, I started to see a shift in her. She began to notice the disadvantages of having a phone: she observed how her friends wasted so much time chatting on irrelevant group chats, or how she felt left out of a sleepover where everyone was glued to the phone watching YouTube. She watched her friends get into trouble for using WhatsApp in class and discovered how other young girls posed in the bathroom for Snapchat. She didn’t want that.

She wanted to paint, tell stories, chat, and be creative, but it was hard when your peers were all plugged into a gadget. But Lara also felt FOMO (aka fear of missing out) when she didn’t know the inside jokes that were circulating on WhatsApp, and again ached for the day she would turn 12. Still, she worried what would happen if she got a phone and was torn between really wanting the phone and really not wanting it.

We finally travelled to London in December; Lara would turn 12 on that trip. Before we left, I requested if she could wait until we returned to Singapore to receive her phone. I explained that she would be so excited to have her new device that she may forget to be in the moment on holiday and not appreciate and relish our first trip after two years. Much to my surprise, she happily agreed.

When we returned after two weeks, Lara excitedly accepted her gift, which was my old iPhone. We laid down all the rules, as usual: follow the screentime limits, no using the phone in school, and no using social media like Faceook, Snapchat or TikTok. She didn’t protest. Over the next three weeks, I noticed that Lara painted a little less, spent less time outdoors and created fewer candles for her business, On a Wick. Instead, she seemed to be very involved in her frivolous, time-consuming conversations with her friends.

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Then one day, out of the blue, I was sitting at my desk when she sneakily came into my room and asked if she could buy slime online. Lara is truly obsessed with slime and it has covered my walls, floors and upholstery. I despise it. She started to negotiate: if I bought her slime, she would give up her phone. I sat there, shocked, as she explained that her phone didn’t serve much of a purpose; it was distracting her from being creative and using her hands, which she loves.

She said that her good friends could still message her on her iPad, and that she was willing to give it up, turn it off and keep it out of sight. Sceptical, I said I would take the phone for a week to see if she would change her mind. One week later, she desired only the slime. It’s been two months now, and Lara hardly uses the phone except for booking a cab on Grab. Once she’s home, she promptly turns it off and returns it to my closet among our other old iPhones.

Lara and I spoke at length about the negative impact that owning a phone can have on our mental health, such as the increase in depression and anxiety, and the decrease in sleep. But instead of me giving examples, it was her telling me how she could see this effect on many of her peers and friends.

Whenever Lara’s friends ask her where her phone is, she feels “like a baby” for giving up her device for slime, so she tells them that her mum banned her from it. Still, I would rather have that and be in a house full of slime, than to watch my 12-year-old waste time on YouTube and get sucked into social media, all of which can leave a negative impact on her mental health.

Today, so many kids feel the pressure to be cool, to have a phone and feel a sense of autonomy. But hardly any of them at such a young age have a real need for it. I completely understand parents who are not with their children all day, or whose children need to take public transport—and for those reasons, a phone can be a necessity. Bill Gates only gave his kids a phone at 14, so maybe the best way is to communicate well with your children and allow them to deal with social media and online content once they’re at the right age and level of maturity. Maybe Lara will change her mind one day, but until that day comes, I’m happy to indulge in her slime obsession.

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