Don’t rush into buying your child a smartphone

There are only a few days to Christmas. Hopefully, the mad dash to procure those last awkward pieces on the list is over and you can finally begin to settle in and enjoy the lead up to Christmas, writes Richard Hogan

However, if you are like many parents this year, you’re probably wracking your brains deciding whether or not you should buy your child a smartphone. This can be a very worrying time for parents as they feel the pressure of their child’s social group.

Parents are confronted with a difficult choice, do they make their child feel different by being the only ones without a smartphone or do they introduce their child to a device that could potentially harm them? This can leave parents feeling confused and not knowing whom to turn to for advice.

The decision to buy your child a smartphone is something that should not be taken lightly. In a recent interview, Bill Gates outlined, much to the surprise of the interviewer, that he didn’t allow his children to have smartphones until they were 14 years old. Parents are being put under increasing pressure to buy these devices earlier and earlier for their children. A recent study in America elucidated that the average age of children using smartphones is 11 years old. This is an alarming statistic. While most early teenagers might be mature enough to navigate the world of social media without any difficulties arising, the reality is that some children find themselves in all sorts of trouble because of their access to social media and internet content.

A question I get asked a lot is, ‘What is the right age to buy a smartphone?’ And it’s not an easy question to answer. Because, as we know, every child is different. And every child has different maturity levels. The last thing we want to do, as parents, is put our children in harm’s way.

Therefore, when parents ask me, ‘What’s the right age?’ I ask them one important question about their child. ‘Can you trust your child to make the right decision when you are not there?’

The reason I ask this question is that you can never fully monitor your child’s internet access. No matter how vigilant you are, there are different ways around your security measures. So if you think your child might do something impulsive or post something without considering the implications, or be affected emotionally by a comment someone leaves on their page, the answer then should be No. Remember, ‘be by your child’s side, not on it’. Your job is to protect them from the world. Nobody knows your child like you do, if it doesn’t fit well with you or you have a feeling that your child isn’t ready for the world of social media and all that brings with it, then I’d suggest you listen to that voice and you have a conversation about those concerns with your child. Research shows that the later a child is introduced to smartphones the safer they are.

Traditionally, parents worried about the right time to get their child driving lessons. There was a comfort for parents in the fact that the law required their child to be at least 16 years old. However, parents have no such comfort with smartphones.

While the smartphone opens up new vistas of information and learning, however, many children find themselves in control of a device that can potentially place them in harm’s way. At the very least if you introduce your child to a phone too early the chance of that child reading for enjoyment in their teenage years is significantly reduced. One of the main questions I get asked by parents of teenage children is, ‘How do I get him to read? His head is stuck in the phone all the time.’ This is a very common theme in families at the moment. Parents must look at the behaviour they are modelling. If your young child is constantly observing how consumed you are with your phone the likelihood that they will want one increases dramatically.

I had a family come to me recently about their daughter’s obsession with her phone. Her parents really didn’t know what to do, they felt she was addicted to the phone and that she was obsessively checking her Instagram messages, so much so that she couldn’t concentrate on anything else.

When I talked to the young girl, it became immediately obvious the difficulty this girl was in. She had received a smartphone when she was 11. She was active on all the major social media apps. Her self-esteem had become connected to the amount of traffic she was receiving on these apps. Every ‘like’ was counted; she even had a journal of all the hurtful comments that was said in relation to the pictures she uploaded.

Breaking this child’s pattern of social media usage was a difficult undertaking. However, after months of work, she finally gained some perspective on why she was consumed by her phone. There was no way this vulnerable girl should have been given access to social media at such a young age. Her parents were tormented with guilt around their decision to get her the phone. They were parenting from a position of not wanting to cause a fight with their daughter by refusing her request for a phone. As parents, we have to be able to take the difficult stance, even if our child does not like it.

Smartphones are everywhere. The decision to buy your child one should not be taken lightly. While they have many educational benefits, Parents must be aware of the dangers of introducing your child to social media and ubiquitous internet access.


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