Smartphones and parenting

Yu-cheung Wong from the Chinese University of Hong Kong introduces the paper he will be discussing at husITa16.

The rise of the permanently connected smartphone has made parental supervision of children’s Internet use almost impossible. In Hong Kong, a city where ICT infrastructure is well-developed and smartphone use very affordable, almost all (98%) school children aged 14-17 have a smartphone. Ownership among younger children (aged 10-13) was almost the same (98%). On the other hand, only 90% of parents have ever used a smartphone. While 35% of children thought they were highly proficient in using the smartphone, only 9% of their parents thought so.

This data was collected from 1, 500 school children and most of their parents (1, 200) from 39 local secondary schools in 2015. Although the school did not come from a random sample, they covered the whole territory with students coming from a wide spectrum of socio-economic backgrounds. The survey data were weighted to resemble the geographic, age, and sex distribution in the territory.

Despite the fact that many schools do not allow students to switch on their smartphone in the classroom, children still spent, on average, almost an hour every day communicating with their friends, another hour on entertainment and about 45 minutes on gaming. They spent only 20 minutes searching information for learning purposes and in doing homework, and 30 minutes or so in browsing websites of their interest.  More than 80% considered the smartphone as a communication tool, and 65% as a learning tool.

A few years age most children used home-computers to access the Internet, and, because of the static nature of the access point, parents had a good chance of knowing what their children were getting up to. Today children can use mobile, wireless technology anywhere they like and their Internet activity is much less visible to parents.  Even though some do not have a data plan to connect to the Internet, thanks to the growing number of free Wi-Fi access points in public facilities like libraries, government premises, leisure and sport facilities, and the lobbies of public housing (where 30% of the population have their accommodation) Internet access is very convenient.

More than half of parents surveyed experienced conflicts over smartphone use with their children, mainly in the form of disobedience and verbal disputes.  Fifteen percent experienced such conflicts frequently. Fortunately, serious conflicts, such as physical violence and running away from home, were rare.

What were the common methods of supervising children’s use of the Internet? Among the 18 items collected from focus group interviews with parents, children, teachers and social workers, we identified three key types: involvement, screening and monitoring. The most common one, also deemed to be the most effective one by parents, was involvement, i.e. spending time discussing the experience of using the Internet with their child. Interacting with children using social media comes next, but it was not particularly welcomed by their children especially those who are older.

Most school children reported that they were happy with their experience in using the smartphone. They thought that it could enhance their knowledge, allowed them to understand new technology, and improved their communication with others. However, about 30% reported troubled experience such as having a tendency to be addicted to the smartphone (30%), affecting academic performance (25%), affecting health (28%),  encountering indecent materials easily (27%), and reducing face-to-face communication with parents and others (18%).

Every generation has its own source of tension between parents and children. The use of the smartphone is possibly one of the most difficult to manage because children’s presence at home does not make it easier to follow parental instructions, or to steer them away from trouble, as most parents expected before the invention of smartphone.

For further information contact: Yu-cheung Wong, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Image credit |  Shaun Dunmall