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Opinion 'There are few intergenerational battles as charged as the quest for the mobile phone'

Author Eithne Shortall on how the habits of young children and phones inspired her latest novel.

A FEW YEARS ago, I was speaking to a primary school teacher who mentioned that her school was in the middle of dealing with a ‘sexting’ incident. Two students had been taking photos of various parts of their bodies and sending them to each other.

The parents had just found out and were now getting the school involved. I can’t remember how old these particular children were – but she said it was something her school dealt with occasionally, among the fifth and sixth classes. “But they’re kids,” I remember thinking. “11 or 12 years old. Surely sexting was only something you had to worry about when your child was in secondary school?”

There were a few seeds of inspiration for It Could Never Happen Here, my fourth novel, and this conversation was one of them. Mobile phone use among children – both in terms of safety and general zombification – is something I’ve thought a lot about since becoming a parent a couple of years ago.

My own relationship with the mobile phone is love/hate – with the balance falling in the latter camp. It’s not the old-fashioned ‘phone’ bit that causes me anguish (god be with the days when a phone was only a phone) but the constant availability, the social media, and all the bells and whistles that make unlocking it so addictive and reduce your concentration span to that of a goldfish.

Throw in the potential perils for children – online bullying, self-esteem annihilation, grooming – and it’s enough to make you grab the family and take for the hills. But short of setting up a The Village-style commune in those hills, where we all agree to act like the mobile phone was never invented (and I’m not saying I haven’t toyed with the idea), it is something I will be dealing with, and probably sooner than I’d like.


This week marked Safer Internet Day with Irish research showing that 28% of children here have encountered online bullying, while a quarter reported being upset by something they came across on the internet.

CyberSafeKids, an Irish internet safety charity, saw a surge in underage children using social media during the Covid-19 lockdowns. It found that 92% of eight- to 12-year-olds now own a smart device, while 82% are signed up to social media accounts.

The charity is calling on the minister for education to ensure that “every child benefits from online safety and digital literacy training”. Campaigners are also asking caregivers to talk to their children about internet use, to watch what their children are doing online and to set boundaries. CyberSafeKids’ research suggests there was a relaxing of online usage rules during lockdown.

It Could Never Happen Here is set around Glass Lake, a much sought-after Irish primary school, and a group of parents who take parenting, and their school, very seriously.

So, what if a sexting controversy happened at their school? How would the parents of the children involved react? How would the other parents respond, and how would the teachers and principal view it? In the novel, one of the children who was sending photos is the daughter of Glass Lake’s parenting queen bee. I could instantly see her marching the poor child up to the poor principal’s door, demanding action be taken.

This is another interesting aspect; the assumption that the school is responsible for fixing the problem. Since that initial conversation about four years ago, I’ve spoken to a couple of teachers – and one parent – who told me about similar occurrences in their school.

Only the sexting isn’t actually happening in the school. Most schools do not allow students to use mobile phones on their premises, and the teachers are not present when the messages are being sent.

Nor were the schools the ones who gave the children phones. The messages are being sent off-site, probably at home. Sometimes the issue – as with online bullying – can spill over into the classroom, and that clearly changes things. But if, as in the case of the initial incident and the incident in my book, it is only happening at home, is it the school’s problem to fix?

Sexting, defined as sending sexually explicit images or messages, is rare among pre-teens, but not as rare as I would have thought. A UK study by NASUWT, a teachers’ trade union, found that a quarter of surveyed teachers were aware of sexting among 11-year-olds. According to Zeeko, an Irish web safety company based at UCD, 1 in 20 first-year students have ‘sexted’ (that’s at least one child per class). Both studies are years old – the UK one conducted in 2016, the Irish study in 2018 – and I assume the trend is only going in one direction.

There are obviously a lot of benefits to children having access to the internet, the unending knowledge it contains and all the places it can bring them. We also live in an online-reliant world, and denying its existence is neither practical nor healthy. So even though my eldest child is only two, I already find myself considering how I will approach it.

Currently, for example, he doesn’t know that you can watch anything on a mobile phone other than videos of him and his sister, but he has figured out that you swipe (albeit not always in the correct direction) to see the next photo. Children are clever and I don’t want to stunt that, so I must accept that the bulk of responsibility for his eventual online use will lie with me.

It Could Never Happen Here takes a wry look at contemporary parenting and, as parents of pre-teens will tell you, there are few intergenerational battles as charged as the quest for the mobile phone.

It Could Never Happen Here is published by Corvus and in bookshops now.

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