Ask the expert: Should I allow my 11-year-old have a smartphone?

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Any time a child starts to use a new technology, such as a smartphone,  as a parent you must take time to get to know the technology yourself first. Photograph: Thinkstock

Any time a child starts to use a new technology, such as a smartphone, as a parent you must take time to get to know the technology yourself first. Photograph: Thinkstock

 

Q My 11-year-old daughter is pushing to have her own smartphone to play games and to email her friends. I have resisted so far because, to be honest, I feel a bit at sea over the whole technology issue. I am worried about what she might be exposed to. The other day, she was looking at cartoons on YouTube on my laptop and some of the suggestions that were coming up in the searches were inappropriate. She says all the girls in her class have tablets and smartphones, but I don’t know what age I should give her these things. What do you advise?

A I think lots of parents feel at sea when it comes to questions about what and how much technology we should let our children use and how much we should supervise them, and so on.

The technologies children use are changing so fast that it is hard to keep up with what the current issues are and how best to respond. However, you are right to be concerned and to pause before deciding whether your child should have a smartphone.

Most parents are under-supervising rather than over-supervising their children’s technology use.

A survey carried out last year by the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) found that just 46 per cent of parents checked what their child does online each week, down from 54 per cent the previous year. Some 30 per cent of parents checked their children’s online activities infrequently or never.

Many parents have got into the habit of simply handing over new technologies to children without preparing them or setting up an appropriate safety agreement.

Recently, I was working with a 12-year-old boy who was allowed uncontrolled access to his smartphone (and the internet) through the night. His parents had no idea what he was viewing and did not even have access to the device as he kept the password hidden from them.

This not only resulted in the child being exposed to all sorts of risks, but it also made it hard for his parents to regain control. Below are some principles for setting up safe technology use.

Parental involvement

Any time a child starts to use a new technology, whether this is a new device,

such as a smartphone, or a new software or app, such as email, Instagram, a computer game, you must – as parent – take time to get to know the technology yourself first. Use your daughter’s pressure to get a smartphone or access to email as an opportunity to insist on some conditions.

Tell her you will consider allowing access at some point in the future, but you have to learn about them together first. Sit down with your daughter and go through whatever technology she requests without a guarantee that she can have it.

This gives you an opportunity to connect with her, explain safety issues and and set conditions on usage, and so on.

Slowly, slowly

Your daughter should always understand that access to technology is a privilege that she earns

as she proves her level of responsibility, rather than an entitlement.

It is a good principle to start cautiously and to hand over access to technology gradually to children. For example, if your daughter wants to email her friends, she can first do this on your laptop under your supervision.

Also, initially, she might be allowed access to a smartphone at certain times, but she does not “own it” and it is in your possession.

In addition, the initial agreement might be that you always know the password, that you will supervise all usage and she always asks permission to use it.

You make any increase in freedom in using technology dependent on her proving she is responsible and that she understands all the safety issues, and so on.

When children know they are supervised, their sense of safety increases and the chance of them engaging in risky behaviour is reduced.

Age and ability

Age is, of course, a

significant factor when it comes to what children should be allowed to do online. As a general rule, with children under 13, the goal is generally to supervise their use fully and to protect them from risk, while with children over 13, you are gradually handing over the reins to them so they can understand and manage the risks themselves.

This is consistent with online rules and guidelines. Most social media platforms – such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and so on – recommend that children under 13 do not use them at all before this age or only under complete adult supervision.

Parental-control software

Learn about the parental-control software on each technology that your children want to use and make sure this is set up and established before they gain access.

Every smartphone has software that allows you to limit and restrict access, and each software platform has family options and restrictions that you can set up. In addition, there are some very useful applications – such as Our Pact – that allow you monitor and control all your children’s technology use from a single source. Though it can take a little effort, it is best to get these all set up in advance as it is always harder to regain control once you have given it away.

Managing risks

In the long term, the goal is to teach your daughter to be able to assess and manage risks herself. As she gets older she will have to manage these issues without your guidance. Take time to discuss the safety issues with her, such as the importance of not giving any personal information, what to do if she comes across inappropriate material, and the importance of being polite online.

A good way to approach this is to read some guides and watch some videos on safety online together and then to discuss the contents. There are lots of great resources and websites such as webwise.ie and safesearchkids.com.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He will be delivering a series of talks on promoting self-esteem and overcoming anxiety in children in Dublin on Mondays, starting on April 11th. See solutiontalk.ie for details.