My daughter will be 11 in a couple of months. For her birthday she has asked for a smartphone to make staying in touch with her friends easier. As she is in year 6 at school, she is about to move to secondary school and her group of friends will all move to different schools – some to her new school, some to others. I can see why this is important to her.
On the other hand, I have also read about the increase in apps that encourage “selfies” and am concerned about how to best monitor and protect her when she uses a phone. I have also read about the rise of bullying on phones, and again I wish to protect her . We have safeguards in place for her use of email and internet: all her emails are sent to my inbox – I do not read them but can ensure that only her friends are emailing her. The family computer is in a public space.
The obvious way to ensure her safety would be to resist the pressure to get her one; we do not have to follow the crowd and give in to the argument that all her friends have smartphones. However, I wondered if there was a way that we could give her a smartphone so that she can stay in touch with her friends, but with safeguards.
Anon via email
Only you can decide if you should get her a mobile phone and, if yes, whether it should be a smartphone. You won’t be the only parent who has concerns about smartphones and I doubt that your daughter will be the only child not allowed one.
That said, not having a smartphone when almost everyone else in her class has one may mark your child out and that – being realistic, not idealistic – brings problems of its own. I am not saying this means you should give in and get her one, but you need to weigh up the pros and cons in your situation. Eventually, your child will get a smartphone and my view is that the sooner you teach them how to control such things (rather than being controlled by them) the better.
To answer your question I consulted John Carr, who is secretary of the Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety and a government adviser on internet safety. He advises you talking to your child and understanding how the technology works.
Carr says it depends on what smartphone you get and which provider you choose. Whichever one you do get, I would advise really getting to know it yourself first. If at all possible (and if you have a smartphone), get one that is the same as yours because I find half the problems stem from parents not being au fait with the technology their children use. You need to stay on top of it. So the advice that Carr and I provide is general because it may vary with the phone and provider.
First: apps, if you do the initial setup then you can password-control it so that your daughter cannot download any apps without your approval. Cameras: you should be able to disable a camera on a smartphone. You usually do this via the restrictions setting, which is accessed via a passcode of some sort, but you will need to make sure that this passcode is not the one to unlock the general phone (otherwise your daughter will know it!). Once the camera is disabled, your daughter cannot use her phone to take pictures.
Carr also advises that you can turn off pretty much anything the phone can do: Wi-Fi, blue tooth etc. You can set up the emails so that the same emails that come to your desktop go to the phone, unless your daughter adds a new email address just for the phone.
“There are also loads of free and paid-for apps that block access to unsuitable sites,” says Carr. (Vodafone’s Guardian is one.) You will need to do quite a bit of homework yourself once you’ve selected a phone/provider.
However, unless you disable a smartphone completely – in which case what’s the point of it – your child may still be exposed to things you’d rather she wasn’t. And unless you don’t allow her to text at all, she may become a victim to bullying.
Education and communication is key here but even then there is not a guarantee that your daughter will be safe from harm in this way. Go on this journey together, explain the risks and reassure your child that even if she’s done something you have advised her not to, if she gets into trouble or is unsure, she can always come to you. And although she will no doubt have come across this at school, it’s always worth looking at www.thinkuknow.co.uk/ together. I’m sure other readers will also have useful tips, so check out the comments on line.
First published in The Guardian Family section on 27th December 2013.