More than half of Irish primary school children own mobile phones — and those without are likely to be pestering their parents for the latest in cellular technology as they look to keep up with their classmates.
But does the average child actually need a mobile phone and if so, when is the best time to take the plunge?
Áine Lynch, CEO for the National Parents Council of Ireland, says although there is no correct age to give children mobile phones, it’s important to establish they are mature enough to take responsibility for using one.
“If possible, buy your child a phone that only has the functions you require. If this is not possible, speak with the phone provider about parent controls that allow you to disable the functions you do not need,” she says.
Child and family psychologist Peadar Maxwell says parents need to be clear about the reasons their child is looking for a phone.
“Parents should start by thinking about why their child needs a phone,” he advises.
“For example, is it required because your child is separated from you a lot of the time by their activities or by your commute to work? Is the phone wanted just as a child might want any other toy, as a status symbol or a plaything for games?
“If for safety reasons you think having a phone is a good idea then go with your instinct. If it is going to be just another toy then hold off and help your child choose a different toy.”
Once you have decided to buy your child a phone, says Maxwell, you must teach them the rights and wrongs and point out any no-go areas.
“Mobile phones are like all other technologies including computers and television — they require some kind of training for the child by the parent,” he says. “Even if your child is more tech-savvy than you are, you can still teach him about appropriate usage.
“A child’s first phone can be quite simple — it does not have to be an expensive gadget with a high-spec camera and internet capacity.
“The parent can ask the salesperson to explain the phone and its functions in detail and then decide if they want to have the internet or not. Controlling access to the internet is first and foremost. But teaching your child about simpler rules — such as not pranking others; who to give the mobile number to, and how much credit is allowed — should be explored in simple language.
“Have your child tell you back what you have told them and, if necessary write up the agreed phone rules on the fridge or in your child’s room.”
Maxwell also advises parents to ensure they have access to their child’s phone so they can keep tabs on whether or not they are getting involved in anything inappropriate.
The crucial part of accessing your child’s phone and its content is to agree ground rules in advance, he says.
“You need to let them know that if they get a phone, there will be rules — even if the child pays for the phone — which include keeping safe, times of usage, where it’s stored, access by parent and knowing the password.
“It is important to tackle time of usage so your child agrees to hand it over after a set time — to avoid texting through the night. For older children, privacy builds trust and if you have no fears about their ability to manage the phone, give more trust and privacy but keep rules about access to credit and times of usage.”
Bullying is a big worry for parents of children who use mobile phones and the psychologist says they must take action as soon as they suspect something is going on.
“Many youngsters access social networking with their mobiles and other remote devices,” says Maxwell.
“So if you discover cyber or text bullying, you should act quickly and take it as seriously as other forms of bullying. There is a lot great advice for parents online about how to deal with bullies.
“It could be as simple as de-friending someone or barring a number or you may need to contact the other child’s parents or the Garda if there are threats or abusive messages.
“Either way, you can reduce your child’s exposure to the hurtful postings or messages and have him stay off certain social sites for a while and reduce unnecessary exposure to the bullies.”
But parents may also want to consider the effects a mobile phone may have on their child’s health. Recent classification from the World Health Organization (WHO) placed mobile phone radiation into Group 2B which means it is possibly carcinogenic, particularly when used heavily over long periods of time.
Advice from WHO on mobile phone usage includes the following: “While an increased risk of brain tumours is not established, the increasing use of mobile phones and the lack of data for mobile phone use over time periods longer than 15 years warrant further research of mobile phone use and brain cancer risk.”
Dr John Cooper, director of the British Health Protection Agency’s centre for radiation, chemical and environmental hazards, recommends that: “Excessive use of mobile phones by children should be discouraged, and mobile phone-specific energy absorption rates values should be clearly marked in the phone sales literature.”
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