Raising a child is all about milestones: first tooth, first steps, first day at school and nowadays their first smartphone? While this may be a peculiar concept for some parents, we cannot deny that when it comes to mobile phones the question is no longer “will I buy one for my child?” but “when?”.
On this inevitable day parents find themselves asking the question: “is my child ready?” Another important question is, “am I ready?” Digital Resilience spoke to parents who have been there, done that and bought the t-shirt and asked them what they wish they’d known before buying their child a smartphone. Here is their advice:
1. Resist peer pressure
“I took the approach of sticking my fingers in my ears, focussing on my child and what felt comfortable and not really giving two hoots about what everyone else was doing!!”
As parents, it can be difficult not to compare ourselves to others. When it comes to smartphones, it’s important not to succumb to peer pressure: it is up to us to decide when the time is right to buy a child a phone. Despite what our children want us to believe, not everyone gets a smartphone before they leave primary school. Ofcom’s recent report reveals only 39% of 8-11s have smartphones – significantly lower than the 83% of 12-15s.
2. Communication is key
“More important than anything is that you develop a relationship where [your children] can talk to you about anything.”
Some adults view smartphones as alienating devices, which slowly lure young people away from their families and into an ominous and unknown online world. The more screen time, the more unsociable the child… or so the stereotype would have us believe.
The parents we heard from believe that trust and open discussion is often more successful than enforcing strict rules. The ultimate goal is that children learn to monitor their own device usage, whilst also recognising that they can approach parents with any issues or concerns.
“I think the key is to share and keep showing interest in what your children are doing online: play their Xbox games with them; watch YouTube clips together; share the things you like doing too.”
“Keep talking to them about it and make sure you can access it while they are young so you know what’s being said.”
Asking questions is a great way to check that your child understands the implications of what they get up to online: “Who are you talking to?”, “Have you downloaded any new apps recently?”, I’ve just watched a great YouTube video about a micro pig kissing a koala, have you seen any good ones recently?”.
No matter how daft a question seems, it is helpful to embed technology talk within your family’s daily life.
3. Become a tech-expert
“I try and keep up to date with social platforms that they are using…it breeds anxiety if you don’t understand how they work and what the potential issues could be.”
It is not just kids who need to stay on top of the latest digital trends; being tech-savvy is just as important for parents. Keeping up-to-date with the newest, most popular apps is as simple as checking the charts in the app store once a month for new entries. Another way is to talk to parents with older children or talk to older children yourself – having been there before, they’re bound to have some useful advice!
There are lots of websites designed to help: Common Sense Media is a great place to start. Their free, online library boasts an abundance of handy guides to every social media site as well straight-talking, informative videos to keep you in the know.
4. Be aware of online privacy
“ I would say to remember that social media forums are essentially public arenas so remember that what you post can so easily be shared (a lot).”
The prospect of your child setting up their first social media profile can be daunting. Something that can help is to set up their profile together. This gives you both an opportunity to discuss concerns and, importantly, by changing their privacy settings together you’ll be teaching them how to control who can see their pictures, messages and posts.
5. Adopt a positive attitude
“We’ve just made sure we’ve spoken to her about the possible dangers, online etiquette and we try to be interested in what she’s doing online and not be too negative about it all.”
It’s safe to say that smartphones have a mixed reputation and can cause real friction between parents and children. However, it’s helpful to remember the benefits: keeping in touch, learning new skills, getting creative and finding out about the world to name a few.
“So other than the fact that they are often glued to their phones [smartphones] have generally been a positive for them up to now.”
Ensuring our children feel comfortable enough to talk to adults about their online life is a priority. Reprimanding your child for their mistakes can make them less inclined to seek your support in future. Revoking their phone access as a punishment may cause them to hide future difficulties from you. Instead, view any missteps your child makes online as learning opportunities and get curious about their digital life. Try these conversation starters today.
“Now I try really hard to find out what they like doing and to show an interest, to engage them in conversation. Arguing about it, and shouting at them, just made them withdraw. But it didn’t make them stop doing it, it just made them more secretive. As I’ve relaxed, they have too.”
6. Lead by example
“Try not to be too negative about the phone…. or hypocritical…. I really have to be careful how much I nag, as can be guilty of breaking my own rules sometimes!!!”
“Encourage face-to-face conversation and… practice what you preach (I know I’m guilty of this!) so restrict the time you spend on your smartphone too.”
You know that moment when your toddler begins to speak, you accidentally say a rude word in front of them and they repeat it at nursery the next week… well, the same applies with smartphones. Children base their behaviour on their observations of you. Ensure you aren’t constantly glued to your phone and: a) you’ll have more time to teach them face-to-face social skills and b) they won’t feel less important than your phone.
When it comes to leading by example, it’s not just about screen time. Try to model good online behaviour. For example, show them how to communicate positively, deal with upsetting comments, spot hoaxes, scams and so forth. Technology and social media expert danah boyd advises parents to narrate what they are doing whenever using a phone around the kids. Children learn how to interact online and you will be more mindful of your own digital habits.
“Lead by example, try not to always be on your own phone.”
7. Everything will be better in the morning
“[I advise my] children to leave online arguments to settle overnight rather than respond in the heat of the moment. This is great, as is reinforces the value of a good night’s sleep to help keep things in perspective.”
When it comes to social media, online upsets are inevitable, especially when whole classes of children cram themselves into one group chat or one child is left out of a group.
It helps to pause and put things in perspective. Just as in real life arguments, kids may regret something that they say (well, type) in the heat of the moment. When this happens, you can help your child to know how and when to put their phone away, take a break and wait for the right time to sort things out.
8. It’s not all fun and games
“I know that a lot of homework is online now and I wouldn’t want my daughter not to have her phone.”
“Teach them the importance of focusing on one thing at a time.”
Today, schools often assign screen-based homework and support the use of homework apps, making it a real challenge for students to avoid being digitally distracted. Procrastination often comes in the form of notifications from multiple friends and apps which are just a click away.
You can help your child to avoid such digital distraction by ensuring that they complete all non-screen-based assignments before turning their attention to the computer. They will find it easier to focus if they avoid “double-screening” (i.e. using more that one screen at the same time), limit the number of windows open on-screen and turn off notifications. Ideally online homework would be completed in a communal area of the house, so you can help them to avoid temptation!
9. Don’t forget the practicalities
“I asked my (now adult) daughter and she said she wished I had been clearer in how easily the screen would break.”
So, you’ve reached that point where you are mentally prepared to buy your child a smartphone? That’s the hard part over with, right? Wrong.
There are still more conundrums. What type of smartphone? How much to spend? Contract of pay-as-you-go and which provider? The list goes on.
There are no “right” answers and when it comes to practicalities the best advice is to take your child with you through each stage of the deliberation process and choose the option that works best for your family. For some families getting a contract with their pre-existing provider seems like the best way to go, others prefer the pay-as-you-go method. Some parents ask their children to pay with their pocket money, others prefer to handle the finances so they can monitor how much data is used. The best thing you can do is research, ask fellow parents for advice and prioritise what matters to you and your family.
10. Make the rules together
When it comes to drawing up rules, involving your child in the decision-making process will make for a smoother ride. Highlight your concerns, whether it’s the cost, the risks of oversharing or excessive use, and allow them to suggest an approach. This will help them to understand your reasoning and make them more likely to stick to the rules.
Here are some suggestions from parents:
“Keep phones out of the bedroom at night – and, if possible, agree this before your child gets their phone…”
“Make sure you set the rules when you first introduce the phones. Agree a time to take the phone away / turn off so it is not in the room with them all night.”
“I don’t limit [their] time [on their smartphones] but I am friends with them on all social media sites and they had no choice in that, so I could see if anything was either being posted about them or they were posting inappropriate things.”
“Curfew at least an hour before bed and no phones in rooms overnight. Also see phones as screen time, not just default position. We try to limit it.”
Managing your child’s smartphone use requires patience and flexibility. As your child gets older their relationship with you – and their phone – will change. So remember to keep an open mind and adapt your approach as required. Although this may feel like uncharted territory you are not alone; many parents are going through similar dilemmas. So keep talking – and listening – there’s great advice out there!
Find out more Digital Life Skills.