My oldest is heading back to school in September to enter year six, where he’ll be one of the ‘big boys’ getting ready to move up to senior school. How did this happen? It feels like only yesterday that he was sitting in his pram gurgling at me and calling me ‘dada’. Now he’s talking about what data plan to get for his mobile while holding simultaneous Skype calls with his other 10-year-old friends over breakfast. Yes, we’ve reached that fateful milestone; we’re talking about getting him his first mobile phone.
He’s already got his own iPad, so we’ve dealt with all the usual issues like not taking it to bed and limiting what he can do with it, but now he wants to take that next step towards freedom. Both my wife and I see a mobile phone as a kind of inevitability for kids these days. And after all, once he gets to senior school and starts taking the bus everyday we’re going to want to know he’s safe and on his way home, so we’d rather he had one than not, but it does feel like the end of his childhood somehow. So, naturally we’ve been putting it off as long as we can.
At what age should kids have their own phones?
This is a tough one. While we’re only really getting up to speed on mobile phones in preparation for senior school, kids in my son’s class seem to have had their own mobile phone since as far back as I can remember (why they need one at a primary school remains a mystery to me). Ultimately though, this is an individual choice for parents. Something to consider is how responsible your kid is. Most kids end up with a parent’s old phone that’s been handed down, and that’s probably more sensible that buying them a new one. Think about how much a smartphone costs and whether your kid can be trusted not to lose or drop it in the playground. And once they get their own phone they might be getting unfiltered access to the Internet too. Without you there to keep an eye on them, and that comes with its own dangers and financial risks – see below for advice on how to handle that.
Finally, we need to think about crime. Having a device in their hand that costs several hundred pounds is going to make your kid a potential target for crime. In fact, it’s British kids’ biggest fear, so you might need to lay down some ground rules on whether they can use the phone in the open or not.
Keep kids safe
All Apple devices come with an app called ‘Find my iPhone’. What’s great about this is that you can log in from any connected device and see where the phone is on a map in real time, so you know exactly where your kid is. This only works if they are logged into iCloud using the same account as yours, which isn’t a bad idea either, since that way they can’t buy apps or games without entering your password.
On Android devices there is Find my Device, which works in a similar way to ‘Find my iPhone’. And because it’s part of the Google ecosystem it links up to your Gmail account and ties everything together nicely.
Now you know where your kid is you need to think about what parts of the phone they have access to. Do you want them taking pictures? What about video calls, music stores and podcasts? It’s up to you what level of freedom you think your kid can handle, but you can turn all these things on and off individually in Settings. On an iPhone go to Settings/General and look in Restrictions. On an Android phone go to Settings, then Users and add a restricted profile. There’s more info here and you can download guides for iPads, iPhones and Kindle Fire here. Oh, and see my previous D.A.D column on keeping kids safe online.
Avoiding online bullies
According to the Children Society’s annual report, happiness has fallen for kids in Britain every year since the first Good Childhood survey in 2010, and girls are becoming more miserable than boys. While the reasons are not quite clear, the report suggests that girls are more likely to spend extended periods on social media which has been linked to a higher risk of mental ill health.
The legal age limit for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter is 13, so you shouldn’t be letting your kids use them before then, and we’d suggest having a good talk with them before they get on there about what constitutes online bullying, and about the dangers of adding people who you don’t know as friends, not the mention the social pressures that come from seeing endless pictures of models on Instagram.
The latest trend to be aware of is Snapchat. Basically it’s a way of showing a photo to a friend that appears on screen for up to 10 seconds before disappearing, which is usually long enough to see a funny filter on it like cat’s eyes or butterfly eyebrows. The photos can be screen captured though, so they aren’t always gone for good. There are lots of worries that Snapchat is open to abuse since you can’t control what somebody shows you once you are their friend, and there have been concerns that the new Snap Maps features enable other people to see where you are on a map. You can find out how to turn it off here.
But while there are certainly things to be aware of I don’t think we should let all the potential dangers of your kid owning a mobile phone put us off too much. Personally, I think the convenience of being able to see exactly where my son is combined with the security of knowing he can always call if he needs something far outweighs the dangers for me.
Graham is Editor-in-Chief of MacFormat magazine, the UK’s best-selling Apple magazine. He lives in Bristol with his wife, two children, four iPads, one Apple TV, four iPhones and five Macs. He’s no longer sure what the order of priority he should list those things in is any more.
Follow Graham on Twitter @gbarl