By Heidi Reynolds – Counselling Social Worker. Head of The Family Life Centre’s Parenting Skills Training.
Deciding when to give your child a smart phone is an important decision, a guideline is usually at around age 12. At this stage your child should be mature and responsible enough to own a smart phone. An important part of giving your child a smart phone is the discussion
around online safety. A good place to start is by asking your child what they know about online safety, ask them what the dangers are, what they think parents worry about and what the rules for their phone should be. This allows you to quickly work out what your child does and does not know.
It is important that you have done your research before the discussion so that you understand the terminology and the risks associated with online platforms like social media. You will probably be amazed at how much your child does know, and if you have done your research you will be able to help fill in the gaps in their knowledge.
By asking your child to set the rules, it shows your child that you trust them and that you
expect them to be responsible. If this is the starting point you create, they are more likely
to adhere to the rules. Without this initial discussion with your child, they are less likely
to adhere to the rules as they have not had a chance for their own input in the process.
The main goal in setting the rules together with your child is to develop trust and to keep
the conversation open between parents and children.
If you establish this relationship of trust with your child, they are more likely to come to
you if something on social media makes them feel uncomfortable. For example, a 13-
year-old girl was receiving messages from several boys on a website, the messages were
enticing and interesting but made her feel uncomfortable. In this case, the girl she felt
secure enough to discuss the issue with her mother and show her the messages. They
were able to have an open conversation about the messages and the girl decided to block
the boys off her phone. Her mother opened the conversation about ‘cat fishing’ and how
to recognize it and how to be safe, giving her daughter important information without
Setting Reasonable Boundaries
As a guideline, parents should have access to a child’s phone at any time, it is important
that the parent never abuses this rule or breaks the trust of their child. Parents should
never look at the phone behind the child’s back. If a you are concerned about content on
your child’s phone, ask them in a respectful way if there is anything inappropriate or
similar on their phone and then ask to see the phone. If you find something you are not
comfortable with, take the opportunity to discuss it with your child instead of
immediately creating conflict by punishing them or deleting the content. Ask your child
why the content is on their phone, what they think and feel about it and then give your
opinion of why you think it is unacceptable or inappropriate. At this point, you can think
of an appropriate solution to the issue, either deleting or blocking the content should
depend on whether your child continues to go against the agreed rules.
Social media platforms like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram can become addictive,
distracting and waste large amounts of time. Setting time limits for phone is important,
much like setting rules with regards to TV or any screen time. Some guidance here is
around 2 in total of screen time per day which includes TV, tablets, laptops and phones.
Screen time should only be allowed after all homework, study time, sports activities,
household chores and similar have been completed. If you work out the rules with your
child they may ask for half an hour after school before starting homework and half an
hour after homework before supper and then some time before bed. This is a reasonable
request and most children prefer the time to be spread out over the day so that they can
connect with their friends throughout the day rather than in one block of time.
Remember that social media has become an important way in which teenagers connect
with one another and therefore should not be taken away completely but rather the
amount of time should be monitored.
It can be difficult to stick to the time limits, especially if your phone keeps beeping with
notifications, which is why you might consider asking your child to give you their phone
outside of screen time. This will allow them to concentrate on what they are doing
without being distracted by messages or notifications. It may be difficult to keep this rule
in place because most children use their phones to listen to music and like to listen to
music while doing homework, chores or before falling asleep. The important thing is to
help your child develop discipline with their phones and to negotiate the rules with your
child as new challenges arise. It is very important that you do not look at your child’s
messages during this time, it is a violation of trust and none of your business. As
mentioned earlier, if you have concerns, you should discuss it with your child and then
ask to look through their phone.
A good way of showing your child how to be present and connected is to make certain
activities ‘device free’, this is where the family will enjoy a meal or activity together
without phones or tablets (this includes parents and adults). This is a way of leading by
example and showing your child the importance of connecting with the people around
you without distractions. It might even become something you can all look forward to, meal times could be a great place to implement this rule so that everyone can share
details about their day.