Parents, here are the rules of your child’s new smartphone
Screens are so integrated in our lives that counting hours spent on them is pointless
Ask who their favourite YouTubers are, then go and sneak a look at them yourself. Photograph: Getty Images
If the longed-for first smartphone was waiting under the Christmas tree for your pre-teen, the chances are your child had it up and running with favourites apps installed before the turkey was in the oven.
So, if the phone didn’t come with your parental terms and conditions enclosed, you’ve already got your work cut out to make up for lost ground.
“Everything you ever didn’t want your child to know about is on the internet – it’s only one click away,” says Cliona Curley of CyberSafeIreland.
Children have been given all this access to the world – and the world access to them – when they get an internet-enabled device. So it is very important to monitor their online activity.
As a parent you are not in control of everything but there is a huge amount that you can do, she says, to reduce the risks that come with the incredibly powerful gadget you have just put in their pocket.
“I think a lot of parents are really stressed about this but are almost terrified into inaction. They don’t know where to start.”
Here are some first steps:
Do your research
Familiarise yourself with the parental controls and settings that apply to your child’s phone. All devices have some level of restrictions; an internet search should give you details about them. Some phone providers and also internet browsers offer parental controls and filters so check those out as well.
Turn off geo-location settings
Many children and parents are unaware of these, warns Curley, who is programme director of CyberSafeIreland, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes internet safety to children, parents and teachers. These settings can be found in the phone’s cameras – the location is embedded in the photos – and also on apps. They need to be turned off.
“Otherwise the child could be taking photos at home, those photos get shared online and effectively they are saying ‘I live here’.”
Check all apps
Set up the phone so they can’t install an app without consulting you. This can be controlled by setting a separate pin code for apps.
Every time they want to add one, do an internet search to find out the risks and safeguards. Each app will have its own privacy setting and discuss this with your child.
Don’t rely on technical controls
Far more important than any software protection is parental monitoring. You should have the password to the phone and let them know that you will be checking it.
Even more crucial is to talk regularly with children about what they’re using the phone for, and what is and isn’t okay.
For these conversations to be effective, they need to be relevant to what your child is doing online. The upcoming generation uses the same technology differently.
“You don’t have to be an expert but you do need to be familiar with your child’s online world,” says Curley. “Make it real.” A good conversation starter is to ask who their favourite YouTubers are.
“Say nothing and go and sneak a look at them yourself,” she suggests. Then it’s good to watch them together and chat about them.
Set screen time limits
With screens so integrated in our lives, counting the hours spent on them is an “obsolete concept”, according to the Irish Internet Safety Centre, Webwise. Far better, they suggest, to set rules with children about when it is appropriate or not to use screens eg not at meal times, or during homework, or in their bedrooms etc, to curb excessive use.
Decide your policy on social media sites
Users of social media apps are all supposed to be at least 13 years old yet the majority of children aged nine to 12 are already on them. So they have all lied about their age to sign up – and sometimes they say 18 just to be sure. This means they won’t get basic protections that may be there for those aged 13-18.
It’s a dilemma for parents because if they forbid children to use them, there is the risk they will do it secretly but then there will be no communication about it.
“It is better they not doing it behind your back,” says Curley who believes it is for every parent to judge their own child on this issue.
Beware of cyberbullying
It’s so easy, through immaturity, for children to be sucked into cyberbullying, be it as a victim, perpetrator or bystander. Schools are working hard to raise awareness but parents need to have those conversations too.
Children often just don’t understand the impact their words can have online. Because there is no eye contact it is almost as if they don’t realise there is another person behind the screen, says Curley.
The rule should be unless they have met somebody in real life, they should not be friends online. The friends list on social media sites, games and apps will determine who has access to everything the child shares.
Children must feel they can talk to their parents about anything that has upset them through the use of a phone. But if they know you are likely to confiscate it, they probably won’t confide.
“Assure them that no matter what trouble they think they are in – all you want as a parent is for them to be safe and to be happy and that they can always come to you,” advises Curley.
With free messaging apps and ubiquitous Wi-Fi, a strict budget on a pay-as-you-go phone is no longer the curb it once was. But it does still safeguard against any nasty financial surprises.
As guarantor for a bill pay phone, you should watch for anything beyond the agreed “bundle” for calls, texts and data. When checking apps, look out for the potential for in-app purchases and make sure you have control of those too.
Look to your own behaviour
All this boundary-setting and earnest conversation will be totally undermined if you take a “do as I say, not as I do” approach. Scrutinise your own habits – from where and when you use your phone and the time spent on it, to what you are posting on social media.
Draw up a family agreement
Taking all of the above into consideration and other factors pertinent to your own family’s circumstances, prepare a written contract on the use of smart phones and other internet-enabled devices. Divide it into child and adult sections, to be signed by both.