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In global smartphone powerhouse, an unwavering submarket for 'dumb phones'

Parents seek outdated, used phones to minimize distractions for children

May 7, 2024 - 14:16 By Song Seung-hyun

Two boys stare at a smartphone screen. (123rf)

In February last year, Kim Min-ji bought a used Samsung flip phone made in 2009. With a circle-shaped LED display on the outside showing the time and information such as incoming calls, the cell phone was the same Kim used in her first year of college.

“It brought back memories,” Kim said.

But nostalgia wasn't her motivation for the purchase. She bought it for her 9-year-old daughter. She wanted to be able to reach her child whenever and wherever needed, but also to limit the kid's exposure to all the distractions that smartphones can bring.

The outdated phone does offer limited internet capabilities, but its storage capacity and processing speed severely restrict browsing the web or accessing to platforms like YouTube. Another big plus to Kim is that the ubiquitous messenger app KakaoTalk is not downloadable on the phone.

“Everyone I know with elementary school children says the later they get a smartphone, the better,” she said. “So I specifically looked for a phone that functions only for calls and text messages.”

Outdated phones, typically referred to as “study phones,” are being sold on secondhand goods platform Karrot app. (Screenshot of Karrot)

Market for ‘study phones’

In the country where Samsung Electronics -- a company leading all sorts of smartphone innovations -- originated and is headquartered, there has long been a notable subtrend for "dumb phones."

On online secondhand marketplaces, it is easy to find posts selling or seeking to buy phones that are more than 10 years old. The primary participants in the market are like Kim, parents of school-age children seeking a communication device that minimizes distractions for students.

These phones are typically referred to as “study phones.”

Before settling on a used phone from more than a decade ago, despite its low battery power, lack of megapixels, bulky charging set and scratches from previous use, Kim considered other options, such as buying a wristwatch-type "kid phone."

But the mother worried that calls made on its speakerphone could allow strangers to eavesdrop on private conversations. She also rejected the idea of simply buying a smartphone and installing parental control apps.

“I've heard too many stories about kids figuring out how to bypass them,” she said.

To cater to parents seeking secure phone options for kids, all three major mobile carriers in Korea offer specialized plans, which typically include a mid or low-market smartphone model equipped with GPS tracking and apps or programs that enable parents to monitor and control phone usage and filter out inappropriate content from web browsing or app downloads.

Previously, however, some of these smartphones marketed as "kid phones" were found to be ineffective in blocking access to content that parents don't want their kids to be exposed to.

What are moms afraid of?

In various online forums where South Korea's mothers gather, it's easy to find cases of conflict arising between mothers and children due to excessive smartphone use.

"I was worried that my child would become too addicted to using the smartphone," explained Sung Jung-won, 40, who has a 10-year-old. "I was also concerned that he would watch YouTube too much, and might even have an accident while walking and using the phone."

According to SK Telecom, the most appreciated feature by parents on kids' phones, which are most widely used by children aged 7 to 9, is the ability to control their children's phone usage time and allowed apps.

"The phone is preferred by parents because it comes preloaded with the ZEM app, which aims to help children develop good smartphone usage habits and protect their safety," said SK Telecom official Moon Ho-jin.

But why not simply refrain from buying them a phone, if they are so worried?

The common answer is that parents in Korea want to stay connected to their children during the long hours they are not with them, often while at work. It is common for kids as young as in first grade to commute to school by themselves and attend after-school academies unescorted.

According to the Korea Information Society Development Institute's data released in 2022, the smartphone ownership rate among children under 10 in South Korea has increased mainly due to the rising number of dual-income households.

As of 2020, the smartphone ownership rate among children under 10 was 51 percent. This represents a continuous increase from 20.9 percent in 2015, 26.7 percent in 2016, 34.4 percent in 2017 and 47.1 percent in 2019.

"I bought my child a smartphone when he was 6 because I sometimes get off work late and need it to communicate with him during those times," explained Kim Joo-ha, a 40-year-old mother of an 11-year-old child.

There are also cases where children need smartphones for school or private educational academies.

"My child had to use a smartphone to complete homework that required a specific app," Sung said.

Another major reason is the fear of a child being left alone.

"My son wanted to run for school president, and he convinced me that without a phone, it would be difficult for him to socialize at school," shared a mother of a 10-year-old who preferred to remain anonymous.

"I've also heard that girls also use the KakaoTalk app to invite friends to birthday parties, so if a child doesn't have a smartphone, she might not be invited."

Samsung's flip phone launched in 2009 (Samsung Electronics)

Tough restrictions not the answer

Kim Min-joo, the mother of a 9-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, believes in taking a less restrictive approach toward her children's smartphone usage.

"I make my kids read books and do their homework first, and then let them use smartphones freely without any time limit. There's no right or wrong answer, but so far, it works for my kids," Kim said.

“Sometimes I even have to beg my child to use the phone so that I can rest. He is not addicted to it at all.”

Kim believes that having rules and discussing them with kids is important, but she feels that imposing strict time limits may not be effective.

"I've seen cases where parents try to control their children's smartphone usage, only for the children to become more rebellious and attached to using the smartphone," Kim said.

Seo Min-soo, a professor in charge of school violence and juvenile law at the Police Human Resources Development Institute who has dealt with many criminal cases involving children as victims due to smartphone exposure, also supports Kim's less strict approach and educating children about proper smartphone use.

"If you forbid your child from using a smartphone, he or she may become rebellious and stop communicating with you," Seo said.

He warned that besides the addictive nature of smartphones, they also pose dangers by providing easy access to the internet. He emphasized the importance of parents clearly explaining the risks of smartphone use and persuading children to use phones safely.

He also cautioned that children may engage in online crimes due to the anonymity the internet offers.

"In cyberspace, children may mistakenly believe they are invisible and can say anything online," he added. "It's important to explain that all online activities leave a trace."