Parents who are giving their children a mobile phone for the first time this Christmas should ideally sit down and make a “phone contract” with them first, according to an expert on cyberbullying.
They should not just walk into a shop, buy a phone and hand it to their child without sitting down and discussing how the child can keep itself safe, says forensic psychologist, Dr Maureen Griffin.
Dr Griffin acknowledged there isn’t a “right age” to give a child a phone as some people will want to give a younger child a phone for safety reasons or so they can contact a parent who doesn’t live in the family home.
“You might say a child’s Confirmation would be the perfect time to give a mobile phone but it can entirely depend on the child’s situation. However, I would stress that smart phones are ‘mini computers’ and it is really not ideal to be giving a child as young as eight a smartphone,” she said.
“If you are buying a phone for a child as young as eight, consider buying a very basic phone like the old Nokia which does not have access to the internet or else the child’s phone, Firefly which can only store a limited number of phone numbers, can’t send or receive pictures and doesn’t have internet access. Outgoing calls on a Firefly can also be controlled by a parental password,” said Dr Griffin.
“Sit down with your child and tell them that you are doing this to keep them safe, in the same way as you taught them the Safe Cross Code. Tell them there are rules to obey when using the phone such as not deleting or responding to abusive texts, instead tell an adult they trust. Tell them not to share their phone password as that can cause them a lot of problems and also to change their password regularly. Warn them to think before they send unkind texts, reminding them that they lose all power over that text once it goes to somebody else and it could end up anywhere and seen by any amount of people,” she said.
Cyberbullying experts say parents should not threaten to remove a child’s phone if they find them misbehaving with the phone. If that threat is made, children and particularly teenagers can be wary of admitting cyberbullying incidents.
“Some parents will come down all heavy and say if a child does this or that they won’t pay the credit anymore but instead you need to make the child realise these rules will protect them. Don’t allow them access to the phone 24/7 even if they are teenagers, buy them a plastic alarm clock for €3/€4 so they can’t use the ‘I need it as an alarm clock’ line,” she said.
Parents should also set up parental controls on their child’s phone immediately. Details about parental controls can easily be accessed online, she said. She also recommends parents download apps that make your child or teenager’s phone child or teen friendly.
“There are apps like kitetime and kitephone that turn your phone into child friendly mode and limit their ability to see questionable sites. There is also MobileMinder, a paid-for app’ which allows you to sit down once a week and see everything your child has seen on their phone screen. It also notifies you if anything dodgy comes up,” she said.
“Remember as parents we need to give children what they need and not what they want. We shouldn’t be stealing their childhood by exposing them to adult material too young.”
It’s good to talk
1. Explain to your child that you are having this phone conversation as you want them to be safe, in the same way that you taught them the Safe Cross Code.
2. Tell them that if they are sent an abusive text, not to delete it, not to respond and instead talk to a trusted adult.
3. Tell them not to share their password, to treat it like their toothbrush — you wouldn’t share that. Also change passwords regularly.
4. Talk with them about how somebody would feel if they were on the receiving end of mocking or nasty texts.
5. Warn them to be careful about what they commit to a text. They don’t know where a text will end up.
6. Warn against sending pictures that could end up being used to mock them or others.
7. Phones should be left downstairs at night-time and turned off at mealtime. An old fashioned alarm clock, not a phone, can wake them up.
8. Parents should try and model good practice. If since your child was a toddler, you batted away their questions as you were engrossed on Facebook, remember that they will likely think this is acceptable.
9. Depending on a child’s age, only allow them use the phone for internet, games etc for a certain period per night.
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