When should your child get a phone and how do you keep them safe online?

ABC Radio Brisbane / By Edwina Seselja
22 January 2021

Experts say there is no "right age" to give your child a mobile phone.(Supplied: Jessica Lewis)

School students across Queensland are set to return to the classroom next Wednesday and many will do so with a mobile phone.

Safety is one of the reasons why parents are equipping their young children with mobiles, but often the devices come with their own risks.

These cyber safety experts have a couple of tips and warnings for parents with kids who have, or are about to have a mobile phone.

Key points:

  • Consider whether your child is mature enough to have a phone and whether or not a smartphone is right for them
  • Take the opportunity to talk to your child about phone safety and what not to share online
  • Set parental controls on the phone and establish boundaries around usage

When do you get your child a phone?

It depends on the child, according to Sharon Trotter, executive manager of education and prevention at eSafety.

"There are really no hard and fast rules for when the right time is to give your child a mobile phone," she said.

Ms Trotter encouraged parents to think about their child's maturity level.

"Do they have a good sense of responsibility?
Are they able to stick to the rules that you will set for them?

"Will they come to you if they encounter something they're not sure about or if they're distressed?"

Tricia Munn, the managing director of Eyes Open Social Media Safety, recommends to "hold off as long as you can".

Experts recommend setting up the phone with your child.(Supplied: Katerina Holmes)

Choosing the phone

Ms Munn said she often heard from parents who were thinking of getting their child a phone that did not connect to the internet, but she warned that this approach had its shortfalls.

"My personal opinion is that if we are getting a child a phone for safety, the fact is that if they are unsafe, they are actually not going to be able to make a phone call or text so we want that location option on there," Ms Munn said.

"I would actually be going for a smartphone because you can dumb them down and make sure their locations are being shared with you and make sure the emergency contact information is up to date.

"There's that SOS call that can send out their location to their contacts."

However, Ms Trotter said phones that did not connect to the internet could be right for some kids.

"It may be that … your child is very young and you don't want to give them a smartphone because basically they've got access to the internet in their pocket," Ms Trotter said.

"You might just want them to have a phone that will allow them to contact you via text or via call."

Set up an account for your child

Ms Munn also suggested setting up a separate account for your child.

"The biggest mistake I see is when parents sign in as themselves, which limits the opportunity for parental control and may also give the child access to adult content," she said.

"Set up an account for them."

Ms Munn said creating an account for your child was an ideal time to teach them about what information was not appropriate to put online.

"A big mistake I see regularly is putting the child's middle name [online], which is the answer to a security question," she said.

"Often they'll use the year that the child's born in the email.

"That's all private information that shouldn't be shared online."

Ms Trotter said parents should avoid including a surname where possible and be aware of who might be able to see your posts.

"[Avoid posting] things like street addresses, any identifying photos that might identify what school your child goes to or where they live.

"Make sure they [your children] know the limits, if they are on social media, of not accepting friend requests of people they don't know."

Set parental controls

Both Ms Trotter and Ms Munn recommended setting parental controls such as those that let you limit screen time or control which apps your child can download.

"Make sure you know what your child is doing, whether they're on a phone or any other kind of screen," Ms Trotter said.

"They should have all their apps set to the highest privacy settings that they can."

She also said to disable in-app purchasing.

"Make sure they cannot access credit card [details] because sometimes they might not be aware that they are making in-app purchases."

Ms Munn said all smartphones had some sort of parental controls.

"My personal favourite is the Apple devices because the parental controls are excellent," Ms Mann said.

"I hear so often, 'My child is not that kid, my child is a good kid.'"

"It doesn't matter how good your child is, your child will experience emotional pressures and peer group pressure, particularly in those first few years of high school and their behaviours will change."

Set boundaries

Ms Munn recommends setting boundaries around usage early on.

"It's much easier to set the boundaries in advance than it is to pull them
back later," Ms Munn said.

"Write them down. Make a family contract about devices and social media usage straight up: this is what we expect, this is what the consequences are.

"And put some expectations in there for yourself as well, which makes the child feel that this is a really important thing."

Ms Trotter said managing these boundaries ultimately came down to being observant and sensitive to your child's changes in behaviour or mood.

"You might notice, for example, that they're not as focused on their schoolwork as they have been," Ms Trotter said.

"If they're experiencing cyberbullying they might be distressed or not want to hang out with the same group of friends that they've been hanging out with.

"Or they might be really focused on something to the exclusion of other things, like [an online] game."

Should you require further information please visit:   www.eyesopensocialmedia.com.au

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