Children watch cell phones well badly

How much smartphone can my child tolerate?

It has been largely quiet for two hours. The three nine-year-olds are lounging on the sofa, each with a smartphone in hand. Only now and then is the silence broken: "Shit, a storm!" or "Okay, now I'm gone".

You play Fortnite: Battle Royale, a free online game that has had a real hype among children for the past two years. The peaceful calm comes to an end after two hours, when the youngsters are supposed to put an end to gaming: "Please, dad, only half an hour more!

From the point of view of many parents, smartphones, those little portable game consoles, brought ruin into children's lives. Read a book? Certainly not. Playing something that isn't connected to a display? Nope! The eleven-year-old, says a mother, recently went to the toilet with her cell phone. For an hour. Parents are almost surprised when children talk to each other instead of staring at their displays in cheerful unity. What to do? Move in the cell phones? Limit screen time? One very dramatic question: are we in the process of educating a society of gambling addicts?

The media educator Sonja Messner is not the one to raise the alarm prematurely: "There is absolutely no reason to worry." She even thinks it's positive when children meet to play on the mobile phone or the Playstation. "At least they play something. Why should building blocks be so much better?" And it takes the fear away from parents a little: "If children and young people surf and play excessively, they are not automatically addicted."

Before you can speak of an addiction, more criteria have to be met - and the time factor is not that meaningful. This is also confirmed by the psychotherapist Dominik Batthyány from the media addiction counseling center at the Sigmund Freud University: "The cell phone is not the cause of an addiction. Excessive gaming or surfing is more a problem-solving strategy. And the problem already exists before you have a smartphone for it used."

From his point of view, it is quite logical why young people, of all people, tend to use digi too much: "Puberty is a time of crisis. A cell phone is an excellent way to go underground and to withdraw." Therefore, parents should carefully monitor their teenage children’s media usage. Is the child very anxious or irritable? Does it seem sad? "It's not normal until there are no other hobbies and the youngsters really hang on to their smartphones non-stop," says Betthyány. A healthy balance is important. If the child suddenly loses all interests and friends, you should contact a counseling center.

Prohibitions are pointless

Media educator Sonja Messner often encounters concerned parents in her workshops. Then she emphasizes that bans do not make sense to restrict consumption. "I often see parents using a ban on cell phones as a punishment," says Messner. "That practically forces the kids to hide things or to lie." In addition, the children are very tricky when it comes to circumventing a ban.

It is smarter to allow gaming and surfing in order to keep track of what the youngsters are doing online: "You can also show interest in what you are doing there." Maybe some parents get a taste for it and build their own village at Clash of Clans or become pig farmers at Hay Day (should happen!). Families could actually experience the exchange and the sense of community when using smartphones.

Parents can also relax a little when their teenager is just hiding behind a screen: "From the age of twelve, many teenagers increasingly withdraw themselves from their parents' control. This is completely normal and, in the best case, leads to healthy autonomy." According to the expert, at this age there is hardly anything that keeps children away from the Internet. It is important for parents to know that they have not done anything wrong and that they have not lost their child in virtual worlds. Messner: "In order to get them away from the cell phone again and again, you still have to offer them alternatives that are more interesting." Parents should not be offended if the child only shrugs their shoulders to activities such as football games, tobogganing or the trampoline hall. "Especially in this phase you shouldn't let your child down. You have to convey to them that you are always available as a contact person." Otherwise the teenager could withdraw even more.

The psychotherapist Batthyány warns that a smartphone (in the truest sense of the word) intrudes too much into the relationship between parent and child. Anyone who makes fun of the kids who are constantly stuck to the screen should better check their own behavior. Already in the playground you can see more parents who would rather check their Facebook messages than admire the cake of their procreation. However, children are very good at registering whether their parents are distracted and not really paying attention. Messner: "In this way, children learn that the cell phone is more important than me." Parents should therefore strictly limit the use of mobile phones in the presence of their children. "The effect of this role model effect is extreme: If parents are constantly glued to their smartphones, the probability that the children will constantly beg for it increases to 95 percent."

When will the first smartphone be used?

From the second grade of elementary school at the latest, many parents are plagued by the next question of conscience: Does my child need a smartphone now? It's practical, you can call and ask whether the child is already on the way home, an afternoon of games with friends can be organized spontaneously. Or isn't it a little early after all?

Half of eight to ten year olds in Austria already have a smartphone. According to Messner, there is no suitable age for the first cell phone: "Every child is different. Every family is different." Often this decision also depends on whether the other children in the class already have one. If the child is sloppy, you can consider whether part of the pocket money is used for the smartphone or the monthly cell phone fee. According to Messner, this has a symbolic effect: the cell phone has a value and is not something that can be taken for granted.

Above all, parents should ask themselves whether they think their child is mature enough for a smartphone - and what the device is actually used for. If you are not entirely sure of yourself, you will find good information at saferinternet.at. The expert recommends speaking openly with the child about the possible dangers: "Many children can understand the parents' concerns well once they are justified." In the conversation you can also clarify which apps are installed on the mobile phone. What parents should definitely do: Make the privacy and security settings themselves - for example for communities and services such as Tiktok, Snapchat or Instagram. And if the child wants to upload photos to the Internet, they should show them to the parents beforehand (or accept the parents as followers so that they can keep an eye on uploads and postings).

You also need to be open about how the child should respond to strange messages or friend requests from strangers. "Adults then find it easier to let go of the child and to trust," says Sonja Messner. After all, having your own smartphone is not the way to complete controllessness.

In addition, you can negotiate a kind of contract with the child about the use of the smartphone. A free tool that suggests rules for young people is available at mediennutzungsvertrag.at. "Parents should definitely print out the contract, sign it with their children and hang it up in a visible place." Also included: what the consequences are if the rules are broken. Discussions are then superfluous.

Trust is good, control is a no-go

Secretly checking the cell phone, however, is a no-go and a major breach of trust. If you want to check something on the child's smartphone out of concern, then this should always be done in the presence of the child: "You have to convey to them that you don't want to rummage, but that there may be danger." Parents have to find the right mediocrity: it is neither wise to act laissez faire when using the media, nor to exaggerate helicopters.

The nine-year-old Fortnite gamers have meanwhile gone outside with the skateboards. Back in the apartment, the parents stay, hunched over the ... smartphone. Just briefly track whether the children arrived safely anyway, over in the park. (Nadja Kupsa, December 22nd, 2019)