I’ve Got Your Number: Mobile Phones and kids

When is the right time to give your child a mobile phone? Currently, nine out of ten Irish people have a mobile phone. Many parents think that giving their child a phone is a safety precaution.  If they miss the bus, or feel scared, or threatened, then they can call home for help. Well, yes, in theory. And perhaps if you give your child a phone which is just a phone (yes, you can still get them) it will enhance their safety. For younger children and Tweens (8-12 year olds approximately) basic old-style mobile phones are probably the best idea. 

However, what most children want is a smart phone. The problem with giving your child a smart phone is that you are giving them access to the internet and social media. While many mobile phone carriers will put in place settings that limit access to various sites, free Wi-Fi, which is widely available, will override those settings. With a smart phone your child will never be more than a few clicks away from content that is not age appropriate. It is essential that you discuss this with your child before giving them access to the internet.  And it is essential that it is an ongoing conversation.

Most social media don’t allow children to sign up but this does not stop them.  There are several aspects of social media that can be troubling for both children and parents.  First, if all of your child’s friends are on a particular social media site there is a certain degree of peer pressure for them to also join. Once part of social media peer pressure can become even more potent.  We’ve all heard stories of ‘Cyber bullying’ and quite a lot of that occurs via social media.  As a parent you need to know what sites your child is on and you need to be able to access their accounts to see what is being discussed or said. 

Many Tweens and teens (and indeed many adults) live their lives on and through social media. Parents need to discuss the disconnect with what people are posting and what is, in fact, real. A lot of distress can come from children thinking that their lives are boring or insignificant compared to the grandiose boasts and pictures posted by their pals. And for any parent who has read the ‘reader comment’ section in a daily newspaper, you know just how quickly things can turn when people post online.

For everyone, parents and children, there are two things that need to be remembered before posting anything. One, once it’s online it’s ‘out there’ FOREVER.  Second, do not post something that you would not say or do in public. 

Another consequence of your child being on social media is what is generally now referred to as ‘FOMO’ (Fear of Missing Out, something that affects adults as much as children). A recent survey by DAUK (Digital Awareness UK) revealed that youngsters as young as 9 checked their mobile phones up to ten times a night. In the same survey half of 11 – 18 year olds admitted to checking social media on their phone when they were supposed to be asleep. Obviously if your child is losing sleep checking social media there is a knock-on effect the following day and 68% of participants said that subsequent tiredness affected their school work. 

Another thing parents about to equip their child with a mobile phone need to think seriously about is cost as usually they will be the ones paying the bill.

Things to consider before buying your child a mobile phone.

1. Agree a budget. If it is a PAYG (Pay as you go) plan, ensure that your child knows in advance that if they use up all their minutes you will not replace them. Similarly, if they lose the phone or ‘lend’ it to someone else then you are not going to replace it. 

2. For Tweens and younger teens agree who they can call and when. 

3. Impress upon your child the importance of not answering calls from unknown numbers and not to ‘friend’ or communicate online with people they don’t know in real life.

4. Smart phones are often targeted for theft. Warn your child to be smart about their smart phone.

5. To ensure that everyone gets a good night’s sleep ban phones from the bedroom. Some people recommend a ‘digital detox’ where all mobile devices are switched off 90 minutes before bedtime.  (This applies to parents as well as children. You really can’t preach one thing and practice another.)

6. Keep the conversation about internet safety going. 

For further information see www.internetsafety.ie The Office for Internet Safety is an Executive Office of the Department of Justice and Equality.

See Internet Matters www.internetmatters.org/advice/tech-guide/mobile-phones/ for more information about kids and mobiles including reviews of ‘age-appropriate’ phones.