Giving your child a smartphone for Christmas? Here's how to make their online experience safer

Tens of thousands of children will get their first smartphone or an upgrade this Christmas. Andrea Mara shares tips on how parents can ensure their children are less open to trouble online.

ON Christmas morning, tweens and teens all over Ireland will gleefully unwrap smartphones, as their mums and dads venture reluctantly into a brave new world — parenting in cyberspace.

It’s a place that for many has more questions than answers — should your tween be allowed on Instagram? Can you keep them safe from bullying? And what on earth is Snapchat anyway?

The good news is there are things you can do to make your child’s first steps online safer — starting with the phone itself, which will have parental controls available.

“With Apple products, they’re under your general settings,” says Dr Maureen Griffin, forensic psychologist with MGMS Training.

“You can restrict your child’s ability to download apps or use the camera and you can decide what kind of content you’ll allow. So yes, Apple do offer good parental controls and they have guides available online with step-by-step instructions too.”

Android phones operate slightly differently, explains Dr Griffin.

“Some people have criticised Android, saying they don’t have as many parental controls, but they do allow people to set up different user profiles — an account for yourself and one for your child. On your child’s account, you can block access to games, apps and features that you think are age inappropriate.”

Restricting phone settings is the option mum of three Deborah Hadley chose for her daughter Ella.

“We reluctantly got her a phone for her 11th birthday,” says Deborah, a student midwife and Gentlebirth instructor.

“I looked at various security apps but decided against them in favour of the phone’s own features.”

Deborah didn’t find it difficult to put the restrictions in place but less tech savvy parents will find hundreds of simple guides online.

In addition to controls built into the device itself, you can download apps that will monitor and control what the child is doing but parents need to be vigilant.

“Just to stress, none of these restrictions or apps are 100%,” warns Dr Griffin.

“Parents really should be involved, especially for children who are getting their first phone when they’re at primary school age.”

Apart from general concerns about kids and phones, parents worry specifically about social media apps — how do you make sure your child uses these safely?

“My main issue with all of these is who are their friends and followers?” says Dr Griffin, who visits schools to provide educational talks on internet safety.

“I know some children who have an account on Facebook, and they might have 10 friends they know and trust from school, and there’s no issue with that. But huge difficulties arise if they have 800 friends and don’t know most of them.”

All social media apps come with settings to increase privacy, though the goalposts tend to move.

“The privacy settings change with nearly every update so I’d recommend looking at the privacy policy on the specific site. For instance Facebook talks you through your privacy settings and alerts you to any updates,” advises Dr Griffin.

“Visiting schools across Ireland, I meet students who have different versions of the same app, so their settings are different. The main things to know are how to turn your account to private, how to block someone, and how to report issues.”

Although there are plenty of guides available online, unfortunately there’s no one-stop-shop manual. But in summary, here’s what Dr Griffin think you should know about each app your child is using:

Facebook

Facebook is to some extent private — posts and photos are only visible to ‘friends’ (people your child is directly connected to.) But within Privacy Settings, you can increase security by changing all options from ‘Everyone’ to ‘Friends’. Profile picture, cover photo and name are always public. Make sure your child understands she should never accept a friend request from someone she doesn’t know in real life.

Instagram

The photo-sharing app is public by default, but within settings, you can switch to “Private Account” so your child must approve all followers, and future photos are not publicly visible.

Snapchat

Snapchat is a very popular messaging app, used for sharing photos and videos, which disappear after 10 seconds (but ensure your child knows that nothing every completely disappears from the internet.) You should maintain the default privacy setting, meaning only friends connected via Snapchat can see your child’s snaps.

Twitter

Twitter — a platform for posting short messages, photos, links and videos — is public, meaning anyone can see what your child shares. But it is possible to set the account to private. Go to Settings, Security and Privacy, Tweet Privacy, and tick the “Protect my tweets” box — then only approved followers will see your child’s tweets.

Make sure that location, discoverability, and “receive direct messages from anyone” are left unticked.

WhatsApp and Viber

These messaging apps are used for sending texts, photos and videos, and only people who have your child’s phone number can find her on WhatsApp or Viber.

Deborah Hadley’s daughter does use social media apps, but only under careful supervision.

“She uses Instagram the most. We have a rule that to use social media I have to know all her passwords and can check in at any given moment.

“We have had stern talks about disclosing age, name, location, and she knows not to talk to strangers.”

Dr Griffin agrees that parents should have passwords.

“Particularly at primary school stage, parents should be the ones who have the passwords to download any apps. The child should have to go to the parent and say “I want Snapchat” and the parent can figure out what it is and if it’s age appropriate.

Does Deborah have any final words of advice?

“Get a phone with good parental controls and make sure you’re familiar with the operating system,” suggests Deborah. “If they’re using social media, agree boundaries and make sure you can access their accounts at all times. Have strict consequences agreed in advance if they break any of the rules, and insist on charging it downstairs at night — this I learned from experience!”

The five apps and two sites every parent needs

Websites and apps that will help parents to monitor their kids’ online activity. 

  • Shieldbully is a recently-launched Irish app that allows you to block app downloads and monitor use of social media. It includes a location-mapping tool, a picture scanner, and an internet usage alert, as well as logging hours spent online.
  • Selfiecop is another Irish app, which monitors every picture your child takes by sending a copy to you, and also warns your child to think before sharing.
  • Mobileminder allows parents to monitor text messages, photos, and browser history, and to block apps or sites. There’s a ‘help me’ function, and you can enable GPS so that you know where your child is at all times.
  • Kids Place is useful if you have an Android phone and want to implement restrictions the way Apple devices can — the app prevents children from downloading games or new apps.
  • Secure Teen is great for older kids — it restricts access to adult sites, blocks apps and monitors activity. You can also use it to stay updated on what your kids are doing on Facebook and Instagram.
  • Screen Time is all about managing your child’s time online. The app allows you to set limits — for example, no Facebook access after 7pm. You and your child can agree times in advance, and avoid a nightly argument.
  • CommonSenseMedia.org is an excellent resource for parents. It’s a website that gives information and ratings for apps and games, and includes reviews from other parents.
  • Webwise.ie is an Irish website with everything you need to know about what kids want to do online. Recent posts include ‘Explainer: What is Periscope?’ and Tinder for Teens: What Parents Need to Know’.


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