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File image of young children with smartphones. Alamy Stock Photo

The government has told people not to buy phones for children. What approach should parents take?

Distraction, entertainment, bullying, sleep deprivation and addiction are among the factors parents need to consider.

HOW SHOULD PARENTS approach the thorny question of their children’s use of smartphones? 

One psychologist specialising in how people interact with technology has told The Journal that screen-time harms children’s well-being – but, crucially, there are protective steps that parents can take.

It comes as Education Minister Norma Foley this week launched a new plan to encourage parents to avoid buying smartphones for children in primary school.

Distraction, entertainment, bullying, sleep deprivation and addiction are among the factors parents need to consider as they decide whether to follow the minister’s advice.

‘Dramatic’ screen time use

Dr Liam Challenor is a lecturer in cyberpsychology and works with schools on the use of technologies.

He told The Journal that it is important to not just focus on smartphones and said that screen time across all devices can be “dramatic”.

“Some children may not have a phone, but they have a huge amount of screen time across their small portable devices, such as TVs and tablets,” said Challenor.

“Phone devices, gaming, TV, and anything used for education. We need to be cautious around that. When screen time starts to increase, there’s a negative relationship.”

Challenor told The Journal that as screen time increases, “our overall wellbeing starts to reduce”.

“A lot of this results from actual sleep deprivation or and the impacts on sleep from children using devices around bedtime.

“When you remove devices, there are research studies that say that we significantly improve in terms of wellbeing , depression, impacts on sleep, anxiety, and academic attainment.

“We start to see a significant improvement in wellbeing generally in the research after a week of a reduction and not necessarily an outright removal, but any form of reduction.”

However, Challenor notes that there can also be positives to device usage.

“If we look at the positive impacts of devices, there can be reductions in social isolation, and particularly we see differences in introverted children and extroverted children and how they choose to engage online.”

‘Cat is out of the bag’

In response to the new plan launched by Minister Foley, the National Principals’ Forum said “most principals believe the Minister’s plans are simply populist and serve only to distract from the big issues in education”.

The minister’s plan is largely based on an initiative in Greystones in Co Wicklow, where parents signed up to a voluntary code to hold off on the purchase of smartphones for children until they hit second-level.

While Challenor acknowledges that smartphones may not be the biggest concern for primary school principals, he said “technology has an impact on a child’s wellbeing, so I think it is an important issue”.

However, he said it is “not entirely down to school to resolve this” and added that parenting styles have a big impact.

“The cat is out of the bag at this stage, and we can’t rein it back in,” said Challenor.

Challenor said “the relationship between the child and the parent is the most important protective factor from negative experiences with technology”.

“If a child has a negative experience with tech-use, they should be able to come to their parents and talk to them about this and not feel like there’s going to be a terrible callout as a result.”

Challenor also noted that “there are pieces of software to allow parents to monitor communication and regulate the messages that come in and out of the phones”.

“I know that some parents like to have access to their child’s Instagram account or Snapchat account, but the problem is what happens if their child creates another account without their knowledge.

“It always comes back to communication, trust, and being able to talk to a parent because you want them to be able to engage safely on that device.”

He added that there is insufficient research on the impact of a smartphone ban among children.

“The problem with widespread bans in terms of our technology use is that we don’t have long-term research looking at the positive and negative developmental aspects.

“While we might introduce bans or restrictions around technology use, some form of study where we’re able to compare schools is particularly important to this.

“If there is going to be an intervention at government level, schools need to be supported in creating these, but also in monitoring if this is best practice for Irish primary schools and how do we continuously provide support.

“And then when a child moves from primary school into first year in secondary school, do they now need additional support around positive and safe online behaviour because they haven’t had a device at a younger age when we can control and monitor a lot more.”

And while smartphones can be “another means to victimise or bully someone”, Challenor told The Journal that “traditional” forms of bullying are still more prevalent.

“In terms of prevalence rates, there was a slight increase during COVID of cyberbullying rates but that was more so connected to the fact that we were spending more time online, so naturally that behaviour increased.

“What we would describe as traditional bullying that we would have had in schools before smartphones, such as verbal and physical exclusion, extortion, and gesture based bullying, those are still more prevalent at primary school level than cyberbullying events.”

Parental warning

Challenor also sounded a cautious note on using devices to keep children occupied.

“For entertainment purposes, a parent might be more tolerant to that behaviour and they allow a child the independence to self-regulate their screen time.

“In a space like a wedding or somewhere where a child doesn’t have a lot of entertainment, I can understand why parents would use a piece of technology to keep their child occupied.

“You can use a tablet at a wedding for a certain amount of time, but I wouldn’t like to see a young child using a tablet for the entirety of a wedding function.

“But if you take it out of that wedding scenario, and you put it into a home environment and a device is given when parents are occupied, that doesn’t set good role model behaviour for a child.”

Challenor adds that parents also need to practice what they preach.

“But the same as when parents use their own phones for social media when they sit down to dinner with their kids, not communicating, the examples that are being set are important.

“If it’s at a point where your own screen time use starts to impact on your own wellbeing or your ability to interact with your partner or wider family, on par or even higher than a child’s, it could be hypocritical to then try to combat your child’s behaviour.”

‘Dangerous addiction’

Simon Lewis is the principal of Carlow Educate Together and while he said there are “positives and negatives to all technologies”, he told The Journal that he “can’t see a good reason for any child to own a device that’s connected to the internet”.

“They’re incredibly dangerous when they’re not managed,” said Lewis.

“Nationally, over half of eight-year-olds own their own smartphone and 95% of sixth class children own a smartphone, but they aren’t allowed to access them in primary school.

“The clever algorithms are keeping you on your device, they pique your interest to keep you on there.

“It’s the addiction and the path that you can go down through that addiction becomes more and more risky and dangerous.”

Lewis added that most primary school children could “do with just a brick phone from back in the day but the horse has bolted”.

“A school’s job is to show children the wonderful things that technology can do on any device, but we also have to teach them good digital citizenship, good internet safety, and all that happens without this distraction of the smartphone ban.”

Lewis added that communication between parents and children is essential.

“The message to parents is always the same, you need to be able to ensure that you’re talking to your children all the time about the use of technology.

“You’re teaching children what to do if they find themselves in an unsafe situation, you’re guiding them in terms of who they should talk to or who they shouldn’t talk to.”

While Lewis said there is scope for a child to use their parent’s internet connected device “on the parent’s terms”, he added that no child should have “such a powerful unrestricted device until they are old enough and wise enough for the dangers that potentially can happen”.

“The best line I’ve ever heard from any internet safety speaker was that the best time to give your child unrestricted access to an internet connected device is when you are very comfortable with them accessing pornography,” said Lewis.

“Why give them something that can put your child into extreme danger?

“We see it every day in schools, the impact of what can happen when a child has unrestricted access to the internet.

“It’s not to make parents feel bad, but in much the same way that my mother knew where I was growing up, the internet is essentially like a virtual playground.

“You go out there, but your parents need to know what you’re doing when you’re there.”

Lewis was also asked about whether it is appropriate to give a child a smartphone in a restaurant or at a wedding to keep them occupied.

He told The Journal that he finds this “horrible” and that he is “even seeing babies in buggies with smartphones in front of them”.

“I can totally understand why any sleep deprived parent who has a screaming child would hand the phone to a child to keep them quiet for twenty minutes,” said Lewis.

“But there is an impact to doing that. There is a reason why a baby cries – what they need at that time is not a smartphone, what they need is interaction with their parents.

“The impact of the speech and language development, the interactions, the eye contact, all those really important human skills that we need to do, it can’t be replaced by a screen.”

Lewis added that he would like to see a cultural shift around attitudes to smartphone use among children but doesn’t think such a shift is likely.

“Thirty years ago, people just routinely lit up a cigarette on a bus,” said Lewis. “It would now be vulgar to see that happening now.

“I’d love to see a day where society would look at a baby in a pram with a smartphone in front of them and balk in the same way we balk at the thought of somebody smoking on a bus.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever get there, maybe society has moved on from that and I don’t want to be judgmental, but I think we’re beginning to see the impact that technology is having in a negative way as well as in a positive way.

“We can’t go backwards but we need to manage ourselves.”

‘Massive distraction’

Meanwhile, Lewis claimed that the plans proposed by Minister Foley are a “total distraction from the actual issues” and that smartphones in primary schools “isn’t even in the top 15 issues”.

That’s according to a survey carried out by the National Principals’ Forum, of which Lewis is a member.

It carried out the survey “to ascertain if the Minister’s statement rang true”.

Principals were asked to rank twenty different issues impacting schools and smartphone use came 16th.

Lewis said it was “ironic” that one of the biggest concerns among principals was paperwork and that “all schools are getting out of this new plan is additional paperwork”.

“Why is the Minister focusing on this when there are so many other crises in the education system that she isn’t talking about, like the shortage of teachers, the fact that children with additional needs aren’t being taken care of, and every other kind of issue that goes on in education,” said Lewis.

“It just seems to be a massive distraction that’s working, because that’s what is in the headlines, rather than the actual issues that are happening in primary schools.”

He added that smartphones are already banned in his school and that there are few primary schools that allow smartphones, with some exceptions.

“We have children with diabetes who have an app that links to a device that injects them with insulin, clearly there would be exceptions to that, and they’re made in schools.

“There are autistic children who are pre-verbal, and need a device to be able to communicate, so there’s tons of exceptions to it.”

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