Gifting children cellphones certainly spells more trouble than advantage. Cellphone use not only distracts but also gives the world outside easy access to children.
Arguably, the most visible aspect of the communication revolution in the last decade has been the use of the cellphone. As it becomes more and more affordable and reaches more and more places, people stay ‘connected’ in all corners of the country across different strata of society. And as the distinction between children and ‘youth’ or ‘adults’ narrows, it is the children whose cellphone use has increased tremendously, much to the alarm of some of us who are entrusted with their education.
There are reasons why most schools had forbidden the use of cellphones long before the recent official ban was announced in Karnataka. First of all, a cellphone is not at all a necessity in school. There is no reason why a parent should want to telephone a child during school hours. An important message from a parent can be conveyed to the child by the school authorities. In turn, the school would certainly get in touch with the concerned child’s parents in an emergency.
Loving and anxious parents gift their children with sophisticated cellphones. They talk about the need to stay connected, and the importance of being tech-savvy in this day and age. As long as they are taught to use the instrument responsibly, it is a boon for all, they exclaim. “We tell them to switch it off or keep it on silent mode when appropriate.”
It is evident that parents are shockingly clueless about the variety of activities — none of them of an emergency nature — that children engage in on their cellphones. They take pictures, play games and MP3 music, they harass each other (this is sometimes called ‘cyber bullying’), circulate jokes, many of which are often not in keeping with our idea of what children should be amused by. Older children surf the Net — depending on the sophistication of their instrument — and are exposed to the distractions and hazards of the internet via their cellphones. In this context, it would be useful to point out one skill that they master with amazing ease — finger dexterity through ‘rapid-fire’ texting or sending/receiving SMS messages. One fallout is the loss of their ability to concentrate on school activities.
Parents must realise that no matter how mature their children appear to be, they are nonetheless children. Children cannot be expected to have the same judgment and discretion as adults. Parents must also realise that just as they can be connected with their children anytime they wish, children can also be connected to anybody they wish. And this is the disturbing prospect. A cell-phone should not be treated as a fad or a toy. The consequences of giving a child a cell- phone must be seriously considered. Some of us are beginning to feel that our children are already in danger of losing their social skills. Some of them are beginning to feel more comfortable in the virtual world and are losing connectivity with their immediate environment.
Health issues are the reason for which the Karnataka government has declared an official ban on the use of cellphones by children under 16 years of age. As early as 2005, the National Radiological Protection Board in Britain had advised parents not to let children use cellphones. Swedish and Dutch studies have warned about non-malignant tumours in the ear and brain and impaired cognition function. Fatigue, asthma, heart disease, depression and impaired learning ability have all been mentioned in this context. While the scientific community is urging caution, cellphone manufacturers are making their phones more and more attractive, with the lure of safety devices and facilities for parental monitoring.
It is a pity that educated adults are unable to exercise their discretion and, as a result, restriction through official bans has to be resorted to. At the end of the day, it is imperative that we understand that our children have to be protected. It is they who eventually pay the highest price.
Devi Kar is Principal, Modern High School, Kolkata