‘Keep childhood smartphone free’: Minister says mobile operators back voluntary ban at primary level

Norma Foley says Government will consider legislation if required to stop sales of phones to under-13s

The country’s leading mobile phone operators have backed a Department of Education initiative to “keep childhood smartphone free” at primary level.

Most operators do not permit the sale of phones to under-13s. However, they clarified on Wednesday evening that they also support the choices of parents who decide to buy smartphones for their children.

Ms Foley welcomed a decision by Vodafone, Three, eir, Tesco Mobile, Virgin Media and An Post Mobile – who collectively have a 95 per cent share of the Republic’s mobile phone market – to back a voluntary no-smartphone policy for primary schoolchildren.

Under this initiative, primary schools parents’ associations are encouraged to set up voluntary agreements to avoid buying smartphones for their children while in primary school.


The initiative, which began in Greystones, Co Wicklow, has since been adopted by parents’ associations across dozens of schools in counties such as Clare, Dublin, Wicklow and Waterford.

The move comes against a backdrop of mounting concern over the impact of access to social media and harmful content on students’ wellbeing and mental health.

In a statement, Telecommunications Industry Ireland – which represents the six phone operators – said it supports the Department of Education’s “keeping childhood smartphone free” guide.

“The mobile sector has always supported parents in their decisions regarding mobile phones. It is essential that measures that will help make the online environment safer for children are implemented urgently,” it said.

A spokesman added that the guidelines were voluntary, which came down to parents deciding to follow them or not.

“Operators would never sell to child directly but would have no basis not to sell to a parent. The operators support the guidelines and their aim which is to better inform parents,” the spokesman added.

Ms Foley said that while phone operators have policies which indicate that they do not to sell phones to under 13s, she wanted this to be “vehemently, vigilantly enforced.”

If there is evidence that this is not happening, she said, the Government would consider whether legislation was needed to ban the sale of phones to children.

She said she hoped the support of the phone operators would build awareness among parents over the risks associated with smartphone use among children, including cyberbullying, harmful content and online grooming.

“I think they are coming out today as a collective, they have a 95 per cent share of the Irish mobile phone market. As a collective, I think that is a powerful statement; to say that they stand behind, beside and before this policy,” she said.

When asked if the voluntary ban could extend to older teens, the Minister said the initiative was beginning with primary schools and the focus at second level was on education and training over the safe use of devices.

Ms Foley said most primary and second level schools have policies which prohibit the use of smartphones during the school day.

She said she was encouraged to see parents’ associations carrying out school surveys, producing research and holding public meetings on the issue.

“The key purpose of these voluntary agreements has been to reduce the peer pressure on pupils and parents in relation to buying or using smartphones and social media apps while they are in primary school,” she said.

“I am very encouraged by the positive response by parents and parents associations and I would like to commend them for all the work they have put in. We know that smartphone use can expose children to risks such as cyberbullying, harmful content and online grooming. It is all about delaying, not denying forever, the purchase of a smartphone, until our young people are better placed to deal with these risks.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent