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Five tips for parents to consider when purchasing a child’s first smartphone.

Parenting

Smartphone

By Michael Hawton

14th September, 2021

By Michael Hawton, MAPS & Jill Sweatman NIIRA.      

In parent education groups, when the issue of smartphones for children (under 12) has been raised there has often been heated debate. On one side of the argument there are adults who say that the unfettered use of the Internet by children (through their smartphones) is resulting in a growing list of mental health problems. On the other side of the argument, are adults who say that children enjoy games and educational activities on phones and like to be in contact with their family and friends.

The thing is that by giving a child a smartphone, we might be giving them something that is not in their best interests. The reality is that while a smartphones give children access to fun, photos and being connected, it also gives them access to the darker side of human behaviour on a World Wide Web. Children are accessing porn earlier. They are coming across content that is harmful, frightening and anti-social materials such as self-harm and suicide websites, violence and other sites that promote uncivil behaviour.

Children are sharing information about these sites in chat and messaging and dialogue at
school so word spreads readily with little or no knowledge of the parents. The deleterious effects of unmanaged social media exposure is particularly concerning for young girls. American researcher, Deborah Tannen, says that the shunning of young girls by their peers is correlated with an increasing rate of self-harm and suicide in ten-to-fourteen year olds in the US. The number of teenagers who feel ‘left out’ of their peer group (which they see on their
social media platforms) is at an all-time high.    

On the benefit side of the ledger, there are some clear advantages for young people in being connected through social media apps. How else would they get to know about a party for their ‘bestie’, if it wasn’t for their smartphone!

The decision to give a child a smartphone need not be an either/or issue and it needn't be something that parents merely accede to. Just as children grow towards independence as they mature, it is probably a good idea that they earn the right to have access to a smartphone, over time. After all, I am assuming that you will be paying for it one way or another! 

With the concern of so many parents who would rather not permit their children to have smartphones until much later, it is a good idea to speak with the parents of your child’s friends. They, too, may be glad of solidarity and support from other parents who wish to support the health and academic wellbeing of their children. That way, not ‘all’ of your child’s
friends may then have unfettered access to sites and experiences, well beyond
their years or ability to cope and process.

Here are our five tips for parents considering this type of purchase.

  1.  Consider that their first phone to be a non-smart phone, before graduating to an eventual purchase of a smartphone.

  2. Keep an eye on their Internet usage at home first and talk with them and guide them through about their internet safety. Set-up filters on their laptop to keep out the nasties. It’s not hard to do this these days.

  3. Don't give them a smartphone or let them have access to social media platforms until they’re at least 13. That’s the recommendation by the regulators, who say there is an age-threshold for Instagram or Tik Tok or other platforms.

  4. If you end up buying a smartphone before they reach 13 keep their smartphone at home on schooldays. They’ll survive without their phone at school, and besides, they’ll be less distracted so they can learn better.  

  5. Develop a smartphone contract with your child. See Jocelyn Brewer’s website for an example of this type of contract. https://jocelynbrewer.com/resources/

    Bonus tip! that will help ensure the other 5 work...Never let your child, regardless of school age, have a smartphone in their bedroom overnight. (If they need an alarm, buy them an alarm clock).

We can't protect our children from the real world forever - and it would be naive of us to think that they won't be exposed to social media platforms through their friend’s phones. That said, we can at least stave-off the influence of a network communication system which, when left unfiltered, has been shown to negatively affect young children’s mental health.
It is important to remember that our children cannot ‘unsee’ things to which they are exposed. It is our role as parents and carers to be diligent with what we hand to our children. The time will come for them to have a more liberal use of technology, with all the benefits it brings.

In the meantime, our time and efforts are better spent helping our children to develop a strong sense of agency so that they will be critical of the role that the internet and social apps play in their lives.

About the author

Michael Hawton is the founder of Parentshop, providing education and resources for parents and industry professionals working with children. He has authored two books on child behaviour management: Talk Less Listen More and Engaging Adolescents.

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