‘Everything about a phone is fine until it is not fine’

Parents need to lead by example when monitoring children’s smartphone usage

Young smartphone users Ciara Fanning, Sean Carey, Caoilfhinn Ní Choiligh and Gearoid O’Donovan. Parenting coach Allen O’Donoghue says children’s phone use is a ‘massive issue’ among parents he works with. Photograph: Tom Honan

Young smartphone users Ciara Fanning, Sean Carey, Caoilfhinn Ní Choiligh and Gearoid O’Donovan. Parenting coach Allen O’Donoghue says children’s phone use is a ‘massive issue’ among parents he works with. Photograph: Tom Honan

 

“They’re never off their phones.”

This must be the most common gripe of the current generation of parents with teenagers. And when something goes wrong in a young person’s life, mobile phones are immediately suspected as the chief contributing factor.

From bullying and unsafe sexual liaisons to eating disorders and social anxiety, or even just disappointing exam results, phones are often regarded as the root of all ills in the hands of immature and impulsive teenagers.

No wonder parents worry. But the chief executive of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, Paul Gilligan, stresses that the positives of phones outweigh the negatives – for teenagers and parents. A quick text or call can avert hours of fretting about a youngster’s whereabouts.

For teenagers, “it gives them access to lots of different knowledge bases, broadens their perspectives and opens up their social reach and social engagement”.

However, parents “have to identify the risks and manage them”, he says, and they can only do this through educating themselves and not being afraid to tackle issues with their children. And – here’s the hard bit – lead by example with your own phone use.

Some dangers, such as bullying, grooming and accessing pornography at an early age, were always there for adolescents. But with phones enabling things to happen quicker and more extensively, the risks are higher.

A new challenge, he suggests, is the addictive nature of phones. “It’s a really compulsive piece of equipment that draws you in, in so many different ways.”

Adults find it difficult enough to resist the lure but youngsters are less able to control their behaviour.

It could be argued that the most prevalent danger to well-being is not what teenagers do on their mobile phones – but what they don’t do when they are on them, such as exercise, interacting with people face to face, creative thinking and reflecting on life.

Psychological impact

Gilligan is also concerned about the psychological impact of seeing inappropriate material or a lot of information they cannot interpret, which “attacks their understanding of life, emotional well-being and expectations”. For instance, believing other people are living a fantastic life because of how they present themselves on social media and being dissatisfied that their own doesn’t measure up. For youngsters who already have mental health vulnerabilities, extensive phone use can exacerbate their problems.

The basics of old-fashioned parenting have to be applied to the internet, he says. “It’s the only way. There is a role for regulators and the industry… but ultimately it boils down to parents and their ability to negotiate, communicate and place limits on their kids on phones so that when the kids are old enough to make the decisions for themselves, they have learned all they need to know.”

Preparing a child for the online world, long before they hit their teens, is similar to many other aspects of parenting, whether it is preparing them to cross the road safely or to be aware of water safety, fire risk and so on, agrees Alex Cooney, chief executive of CyberSafeIreland.

Owning your first smartphone is undoubtedly a rite of passage, she says, and recent findings suggest some 70 per cent of 12-year-olds have one. However even if a parent has held back on letting their child have a smartphone before secondary school, at least 98 per cent of children in sixth class at primary school own some sort of smart device connecting with the internet.

While people tend to focus on what children can access through phones, Cooney believes other internet-enabled devices, such as for gaming and music, can be overlooked.

Digital literacy

“Most kids will be comfortable with technology and accessing the online world well before they start secondary school,” she points out. “However, the issue is that as parents and as educators, we’re not preparing them sufficiently well for that access to the online world and for technology ownership.”

She believes digital literacy must be taught in schools, starting at primary level, “so that kids can critically assess the content they’re coming across online – for example, understanding things like fake news, filter bubbles, people are not always who they say they are etc”.

The days when parents would try to hold off until first year of secondary school before allowing their child a smartphone seem well gone and many have one from their First Communion, says Rita O’Reilly, manager of Parentline (1890 927 277, info@parentline.ie), which is contacted most frequently by parents of teenagers.

However, she says 13 is still very young for full access to the internet and that parents must insist on being able to check their phones. They won’t like it and will try to hide stuff, she suggests, but parents should make it very clear that it’s not about “watching you”, rather it’s “caring for you”. By 14 or 15, you could begin easing back but still make sure you have access if needs be. “Like everything, everything about a phone is fine until it is not fine,” she adds.

She also recommends simple house rules such as no phones at the table and that phones not be brought upstairs at night. Of course parents need to limit their phone use the same way if they are going to insist their children do.

The “do as I say, not as I do” approach to parenting is rife when it comes to phones. As Allen O’Donoghue, a parenting coach with Help Me to Parent, points out: “We all talk about phones being an extension of teenagers’ hands but we are exactly the same.”

He says it is essential for parents to have monitoring software on younger teens’ phones, as he has on his 13-year-old daughter’s phone. “I have parental control so she needs to get permission from me to download an app. I don’t look at all her messages but the monitoring software highlights to me concerning words or images that I might be worried about. It sends me a notification and I can go and have a conversation with my daughter.”

Privacy

He says it costs about €10 a month. “It’s worth it – it allows your child their privacy but at the same time you can keep them safe.” While he currently uses the software’s highest alert level, he envisages reducing that as she gets older. A 13-year-old with unrestricted access to the internet “is going to see things that they can’t comprehend and I think that can then impact on their mental health”. When it comes to upsetting material online, adults can decide not to look at it but a teenager may not have the maturity to exercise that choice.

Children’s phone use is a “massive issue”, he says, among parents he works with. Imposing restrictions, such as turning off the wifi, isn’t easy, he acknowledges.

“Parents feel powerless, that it’s just not worth my child turning the house upside down to have the argument.” He doesn’t like to be prescriptive and would always say, “do what’s right for your little family – you don’t need to worry about the rest of the world. If it’s an issue for you, you need to do something about it – if it’s not, don’t worry about it.”

He finds parents most complain about the “disengagement” of teens, when they’re sitting at the table and looking at phones, or heading to the bedroom to be online. While it could be argued that teenagers always found a way to distance themselves from parents, he believes they are becoming independent quicker because of phones.

Unforgiving milieu

However, the constant surveillance from other people’s phones can create a very unforgiving milieu in which to grow up by trial and error. “I did stupid stuff as a teenager but there wasn’t a camera recording it,” says O’Donoghue. “Now there’s a camera recording everything.” Parents need to talk about the pitfalls, impressing on teens that, for instance, if they send a compromising photo of themselves to a friend, “you lose control of it, no matter how much you trust the other person”.

Teenagers will make mistakes, says Gilligan, and if they end up doing something that seems catastrophic, “parents need to stand shoulder to shoulder with them, saying: ‘This is not catastrophic, not everybody has seen this message or this photo, life isn’t over, we can move on.’”

Whereas he thinks parents can be inclined to panic, unsure of how to manage the situation. “It’s important parents don’t overreact.” Try to understand it from the youngster’s view and reassure them that people’s attention span is short.

Another concern for O’Donoghue is filters used on photos, “that can distort the image of ourselves”. His bugbear is parents who use them when posting photos of themselves with their children, to look the best that they can be online “but you can never look like that in real life”. They’re setting their offspring up for dissatisfaction with what they see in the mirror.

As wedded as teenagers are to their phones – so often the first and last thing they look at in a day – they are not blind to the downsides and the need to put them down occasionally.

“Arguably, without my phone, I’d be a lot more present in the moment,” says Jack Kelly (17). A Dublin-based member of Foróige’s national council, he says he tries to be off it “when I’m with friends, cooking dinner etc. At home we don’t have any rules about phone usage whereas my school has a strict no-phone policy once you enter the school building.”

Social media

Caoilfhionn Ní Choiligh (19) from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, a member of the Irish Second-Level Students Union’s national executive, has made a conscious effort to limit her use by reducing the number of apps she uses. “The more apps and social media we use the more distracted we are, and we become more fixated on our appearance and content,” she says.

We don’t realise how the pressures of social media, with its likes and followers, can be such a subconscious burden and can negatively impact our confidence, says Éadaoin Doherty (17), of Carndonagh, Co Donegal, another member of Foróige’s national council. “Certainly for me and many of my peers the pressure of always looking ‘good enough’ or ‘skinny enough’ has at times really, really eaten away at our self-esteem.”

Among the young people interviewed for this article, there’s consensus that parents and teachers tend to overlook the benefits of smartphones and exaggerate the dangers, underestimating the “smartness” of teenage users. However, they are concerned that generally children now have access to the internet at a younger age than they did.

As with so many aspects of raising teens, you can only offer advice, set and hold some boundaries – and trust they will realise for themselves what’s best in the end.

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