What's the right age to give a child a mobile phone?

How do we make our kids smart about smartphones? Andrea Mara finds out.

I KNEW everything about parenting before I had kids — I knew I’d never use TV as a babysitter or give them chips two nights in a row, and I definitely wouldn’t bribe them to behave.

Then, of course, I had children.

If becoming a parent has taught me anything, it’s that die-hard mantras come back to bite you.

So when I tell my nine-year-old that she can have her first phone just before she starts secondary school, I’m conscious that I may be naïve.

But what age is the right age to let children have phones, and how easy is it to stick to the plan?

Fiona Dorgan has three children, and like me, she planned that her eldest child would get a phone after he finished primary school.

“Then we ended up getting it when he was in 5th class — aged 11. He was one of the last in his class and we did it more so for ourselves, as he was going to matches and it’s a good way to keep in touch.”

Fiona travels regularly as part of her job in financial services, and finds the phone comes in handy for that too.

“It’s always nice to contact him when I am away. And actually, we thought it would be a disaster but he has been really responsible with it. We put blocks on it and check it very frequently.”

I suspect many parents end up in the same position as Fiona — on idealistic terms, the plan is to wait, but then the practicalities of everyday life kick in, and the best-laid plans may change.

Karen O’Reilly is also waiting until secondary school, but her plan has a very good chance of success, because all of the parents have agreed it together.

“My daughter is 11 years old and is in fifth class — we live in Clonakilty, so you could say a small town. We have cousins in the city and realise we are way behind them in terms of technology in general and phone usage.

"The city cousins of the same age all have phones as do all of their friends. Their mums say it’s for security reasons, for picking up and dropping off. I really don’t feel we need the mobile phones, living in the country.”

Karen O’Reilly, who has agreed with other parents to hold off on giving their eldest a phone until secondary school.

What makes it easier for Karen, whose business Employmum.ie helps women find flexible work, is that her daughter hasn’t asked for a phone.

“She has no interest — none of her friends have them, so who would she be contacting? She pals around with five or six other girls and the mums have all teamed up and agreed no phones until secondary school.”

Indeed, that’s what it often comes down to — what the other parents decide to do.

We can all make plans to wait until secondary school, but if a child is genuinely the only person in sixth class who doesn’t have a phone, that’s difficult.

Dublin mum Silva says her daughter has had a phone since she was nine.

“She was given a phone last Christmas. At the time my partner and I weren’t sure about the decision but she has been very responsible with it. She uses it for YouTube — controlled content — and to make music videos and chat with her friends. We wanted her to have a phone so we can contact her when she is out playing and she has to come home. I don’t regret the decision.”

Lucy O’Connor has a hybrid solution — her three children have old phones that once belonged to Lucy and her husband.

“There are no SIM cards in any of them and no use of any social media — not a chance until they’re older,” says Lucy who blogs at Learnermama.com. “Emily will be 10 this month and uses hers to play games, watch YouTube videos and search Google. The younger two hardly use theirs — but they like to tell people they have phones!”

SO at what age will she allow her daughter to have a fully functioning phone?

“I have 12 in my head. Her birthday is three days before Christmas so I guess her 12th birthday would be good. Though we may cave at her 11th birthday!”

It’s obviously something lots of us are putting thought into, and the question is — does it really matter? Yes it does, says psychotherapist Joanna Fortune (Solamh.com).

Psychotherpist Joanna Fortune says exposing kids to devices can be damaging.

“Childhood is a short and precious time, not just from a parental viewpoint — wanting to keep our children as children for as long as we can — but from a developmental viewpoint.

"From zero to seven-years-old there are three stages of developmental play that children must go through in order to develop vital social skills such as reflective functioning, critical thinking, reciprocity, emotional regulation, impulse control, a capacity for delayed gratification and, vitally, empathy.

"Premature and/or prolonged exposure to screen-based devices in these years may serve to short-circuit these natural developmental pathways and catapult a child forward developmentally without having negotiated these important stages, which will have developmental consequences into adolescence.”

If, however, a parent feels they must give a phone to a younger child because they are walking home from school for example, what is the best way to do it?

“A handset that is functional, for sending and receiving texts and phone-calls, with limited prepaid phone credit and pre-programmed numbers, is one way,” says Fortune.

“And before handing any smart device to your child, go into the phone shop and have a staff member educate you as to the capability of that device so that you know everything it can be used for.”

Dr Maureen Griffin, forensic psychologist (with MGMS Training) agrees.

“There are so many inbuilt parental controls in phones. You can restrict apps they use and sites they go on. The key thing is that the parents should have passwords for all app downloads, particularly at primary school stage.”

She gives a specific example.

“If they want to download Snapchat, they need to come to parents to ask and then the parents can go and figure out what Snapchat is. There’s a great website for this called CommonSenseMedia.org which includes a ‘things you have to be aware of’ section at the bottom, specifically for parents.”

She says the same vigilance is needed on all devices.

“Lots of parents are delighted they’re not getting phones for their kids until the end of 6th class but the child might have a tablet since they’re two years old. What the kids want is a portable device that they can put their apps on.

"They’re not using their phones to talk to people or for texting — they’re chatting through apps like Snapchat, Whats App and Viber.

"We focus on keeping them away from phones until they’re in secondary school, but if they have a tablet that’s unmonitored, you have the same issues.”

Of course, blanket rules are difficult. Griffin says: “You could have a parent who is living out of the home or travels a lot with work. They want the phone to stay in contact.

"But if you’re giving your child a phone at primary school age, you need to sit down and talk to them. You could come up with a ‘device contract’ — talk to your child about how to appropriately use this device and prepare them for situations they might be faced with, like getting a message from someone they don’t know.

"Also agree that the phone has to be handed in at a certain time at night — they shouldn’t have a phone in the bedroom under the pillow. They still sell alarm clocks! It’s really about appropriate use.”

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