Phones 4 Kids?

Discover the facts about mobile phones and children so they stay safe.

Mobile phones are now central to our lives and how we communicate. And for better or worse, mobiles are hugely popular with children. The latest stats from communication regulator Ofcom show that half of all children aged five to 15 have a mobile phone, and the likelihood of owning a mobile phone increases with age. In fact, only 13 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds don’t have one.

Mobile phones allow children to communicate with their friends, take pictures, play games, look up facts, and generally feel connected. From a parent’s viewpoint, you can reach them, and they you, in an emergency. Mobile phones also offer a stepping stone for many young people towards responsibility and independence. But alongside the exciting possibilities come potentially harmful pitfalls – both to the wellbeing and safety of your child. It’s important to be aware of the issues so you can help your kids get the most out of their phones and stay safe.

Camera cons
While phones with built-in cameras can be great fun, there are a couple of issues you need to raise. “It’s not possible to withhold a number when sending a photo from a mobile,” explains parenting expert Sue Atkins (www.TheSueAtkins.com), “so photos your kids send or receive can be traced.” Once a photo is out there, it can be easily shared, and could end up in the wrong hands.

Web alert
Helping to make sure your kids don’t view unsuitable material via the web on their phones is actually quite simple - UK mobile operators provide an internet filter on their phones, though operators often need to be asked to activate such parental controls, Ofcom point out, so do ask. Experts warn WiFi can get round internet filters, so discuss this with your child. Turning Bluetooth off on your child’s phone will ensure it is not seen by other Bluetooth users.

Cyber bullies
On mobile phones, cyber bullying can happen through nasty texts, calls, instant messages or via social networking sites. It means cyber bullies can theoretically get to your child any time. “There’s no need to become obsessed with the possibility – but both you and your children need to have an idea of what to do if it happens,” says Sue. If it does, ensure your child knows it’s not their fault, and that it is essential to tell someone. Experts advise that children must never text the bully back or retaliate. Teach them to save offending messages and note dates and times. “The one upside is that with cyber bullying, you at least have proof it happened,” points out Suzie Hayman, trustee of the charity Family Lives (www.familylives.org.uk). This would be useful if you need to talk to the school or police. Use the block buttons or privacy settings available online. Know the relevant number of your mobile network if your child receives malicious calls or messages.

Keep a careful eye
As well as talking through careful mobile phone use, parents should set boundaries and have rules that, if broken, have consequences. You could have mobile-free times for instance. “It’s a question of sitting down and talking through the responsibilities of the privilege of having a mobile,” says Suzie.

Bills are easier to monitor if you sign your kids up to a contract. ‘Pay as you go’ may teach older children how to manage money, but you don’t get monthly itemised bills. If you’re buying them a mobile phone, ensure you read the invaluable checklist from charity Childnet International (www.childnet-int.org/safety/factsheets.aspx). It lists important questions to ask your mobile operator. And think about whether they’re ready to actually have a mobile. “Around 11 when starting secondary school is an appropriate age, but every family is unique and different, so it’s important to consider what’s acceptable to you,” says Sue.

Suzie agrees. “There’s no need for children at primary school to have a phone. The exception is children with one parent (or even a sibling) living apart from them,” she says.“It’s incredibly important for the child to have regular contact with their family member and to have control over that contact.” Remember you can get mobiles without a camera or the internet.

Health scare?
There’s another kind of concern. You may have seen the headlines and pondered whether mobiles could harm your family. A large number of studies have looked at mobile phone use and potential health risks. The official line from the World Health Organisation and the Health Protection Agency in the UK is that, to date, no adverse health effects have been established. That goes for cancer (of the brain and nervous system), and symptoms such as headaches.

Here’s the but – we’ve only been using mobile phones for a relatively short time, so more research is needed, especially to assess if there are long-term risks. A 20 to 30-year study is currently under way to address this imbalance, as is research specifically looking at children. It’s thought children may be more vulnerable to potential health issues, since the body and nervous system are still developing into the teenage years. As a precaution, the Department of Health advise that children under 16 should be encouraged to use mobile phones for essential purposes only, and to keep calls short. There are other ways to reduce your child’s (and your!) exposure to the radio waves from mobiles, such as getting them to text rather than call where possible, or using a hands-free kit.

As with most things, the question of kids and mobile phones seems to be one of informed balance. Your mobile operator owes it to you to keep you informed – check out parental advice on their websites.

Did you know?
The average number of texts sent per week by 12 to 15-year-olds has doubled since 2007, according to Ofcom.

Golden rules to give your kids if they use a mobile

  • Only give your mobile number to people you know and trust.
  • Think about the messages and photos you send out or post online. Could they upset someone? Do you mind if lots of people see them? Do the photos reveal personal details?
  • If you receive any nasty messages or inappropriate pictures that upset you, speak to someone about it – be it mum or dad, your teacher, or even a helpline if you prefer. Try www.cybermentors.org.uk.
  • To avoid your phone being stolen, try not to make it too visible when out and about and never leave it unattended.
  • Beware of premium numbers and premium texts - they’re more expensive. For more information, visit www.phonebrain.org.uk.

     

Words: Aviva Ingram


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