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Opinion 'Phones have become a battleground for parenting in the age of social media'

Mum Margaret Lynch looks at the question of smartphone use for children and shares her own experiences.

RECENTLY, WE WERE having a family lunch at my aunt’s house when someone asked my 13-year-old daughter if she had spent all of her confirmation money yet. She answered that she had ‘accidentally spent €240 in one go’ but that she was trying to save the rest. Knowing where the conversation was headed, I tried desperately to stop her from opening the can of worms.

I gave her my best look. You know, the one you are gifted as soon as you give birth that allows you to completely immobilise your child from the other side of the room. It has a 37% success rate.

A couple of days after Christmas (when my credit card was already in severe distress), she signed up for an app where she could receive anonymous messages. Within a few hours, she began to receive some really awful and hate-filled messages. Things that you would never believe another 13-year-old could write. Helpfully, the app gave her the option to see who sent the messages, at the bargain price of €40 a hit. Six clicks on my credit card and one ruined friendship later, she came to us in tears.

At the time, we were just so grateful she had come to us with the problem. We are all too aware of times when children have chosen other, more final options when faced with similar situations.

The question of phones

Along with her entire can of worms, an uncharacteristic silence landed on the table. There was so much to unpack. Phones are such a divisive topic and it’s so easy to dismiss the entire event by saying a 13-year-old shouldn’t have one in the first place. Instead of going in that direction though, everyone pitched in with their own stories of support, scams or other costly online mistakes.

In a world that is increasingly online, wouldn’t it be far more beneficial to our kids to support and help them navigate this world, rather than putting a blanket ban on the age they can access it?

Keeping your kids offline only prevents them from learning the tools which will be vital for their future.

Bill Gates famously kept his kids away from screens until they were 14. Well done, Bill. I can’t count how many times I have heard this fact, but do you know what other part of Bill’s parenting advice I love? Nothing. I honestly haven’t a clue. I don’t know what age he weaned them to solids, or how he handled curfews or if he used flash cards while explaining the birds and the bees. And I don’t know these things because he isn’t a parenting expert. And while that was the best choice for Bill’s family 15 years ago, I don’t expect it to be relevant to my family now.

What’s the right age?

Social media has made parenting into a competitive sport and phones are a battleground for every family. The age at which you get your child a phone is a personal choice for you and your family. There is no universal age that everyone will agree with. You have to do what’s right for your family.

Age isn’t as important as other indicators of maturity. How independent are your kids? Are they definitely not going to drop it into a toilet or leave it in Mcdonald’s? Having a phone requires a lot of trust, and if/when that trust is damaged, a natural consequence is that their phone is confiscated for the appropriate amount of time.

The 13-year-old got a phone just after her 12th birthday, and in the greatly unfair yet inexplicably global tradition of the younger child getting things sooner, the 11-year-old got one just after her most recent birthday.

We were going to wait until she turned 12 but had to reassess this along the way. Shortly after moving to a new area, she walked home with a friend after school. She didn’t realise how far into an estate they had walked and after her friend went in, she wasn’t sure how to get home. It took her around 25 minutes to navigate her way and we were all left a little traumatised. We got her a phone soon after, which was only to be used in emergencies and is now a permanent feature on her right hand.

Keeping an eye

I have parental settings on both, so they need approval before downloading apps (those ones promising free Robux catch them every time). We can share calendars to add training or other events they need to be reminded of or prepared for.

robloxmobilegameapponthesmartphonescreen-yellowbackground Roblox mobile game app on the smartphone screen. Yellow background with school supplies, children's accessories, video game controller. Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil. February 2022. Shutterstock / Diego Thomazini Shutterstock / Diego Thomazini / Diego Thomazini

Some of the technology offers parents and guardians a little welcome assistance at times. For example, if your child is in a tricky situation with friends, they can send you an agreed code word or emoji, so that you know to call them and insist they come home right away. Your child can leave a sleepover, or a hang out when they need to. They can call you if they don’t feel safe. If they fall on the way to school or have a falling out on the way home. There are also tonnes of educational resources available to them.

Once their friends begin getting phones, this is where you need to be prepared – it’s the time they will begin to plan anything social.

Texting and social media are how many children keep in touch in 2023. This is the conundrum for so many parents – it’s how children issue invites and even catch up on forgotten homework. You worry then that if your child doesn’t have a phone, there may be times when they feel out of the loop. And look, this might work for you. Maybe you need your child out of the loop a little longer. You know your child best. If your child has no need for a phone, then you don’t need to get them a phone. On the other hand, they could be hugely affected by missing out and that’s where a bit of gentle parenting comes in. We all remember what it was like as a teenager, pre-teen. All they want to do is fit in. 

Limited access

Bill Gates also noted that when his kids got phones, they were only allowed an hour a week. This seems reasonable. We too gave screen time limits at first. But it just led to a sense of panic and urgency around the time and loss when we took it away. They weren’t able to fully relax into their phone time because the idea of it being taken away was hanging over them. This led to them feeling that all other non-tech activities were boring, or even a punishment.

Research tells us that when it comes to rewards, restriction leads to bingeing. Using food restriction on a regular basis usually results in binges once the food is available, psychological preoccupations with food and eating, and a lack of ability to correctly identify your own hunger cues. In my experience of parenting, the same principles apply to other areas.

We found that setting unrealistic limits and restricting the use of technology only strengthened the desire for it. When you restrict it, your child is more likely to binge, hyper-focus and sneak time at any opportunity they get.

A screen shouldn’t hold their attention for an entire day. Between school, homework, after-school sports and activities, and hanging out with friends they don’t have endless hours to spend on the phone anyway. I have found that if left to their own devices, they will put the phone down. They will read a book, or attempt an incredibly messy activity they saw somewhere (thank you Pinterest).

They do activities that would never have occurred to me at that age. The 13-year-old teachers herself a new song on the guitar each week, and can talk for hours about climate change or current events. My younger daughter is so creative and has found amazing inspiration for art and design ideas. Just because they are using a screen, it does not mean that time is wasted. They find tools for mindfulness, self-care, meditation and gratitude. They will get book recommendations, recipes, outfit inspiration or a run down of current events.

We have all had only a short time as adults, as families and as a society to adjust to the massive influx of tech into our lives. We can all set the tremendous access to information and learning it has brought us, but there’s also no mistaking the darker side of smartphone and internet access. You don’t have to look far to see how hurtful and damaging it can be. As parents and guardians, open and honest conversations about potential risks will keep communication lines healthy, we have found that the earlier your child develops good habits and boundaries, the better.

The less time we spend vilifying technology for a generation who will use it more than anyone before them, the quicker we can show them safer ways to use it. So, let’s move away from blacklisting phones, and instead focus on healthy ways to give them the tools they will need to navigate their increasingly online world. 

Margaret is a busy mum, working and living in Kildare.


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