“No child in primary school needs a smart phone. None. Never,” cyber safety expert and former police officer Susan McLean is starting her day and, as she sips something – judging by her energy I’m thinking it’s coffee – she tells me over the phone her thoughts on the ‘right’ age to allow children a smart phone.
“Parents who buy their child a smart phone in primary school are trying to be their child’s best friend. What kid wants a 40-year-old best friend?” she continues. “They don’t need it and they are too young to understand the risk. The consequences can be devastating.”
McLean has seen it first hand. Her first case involving the safety of children online was in 1994. It was a group of Year Eight school girls targeted by cyberbullies. “We know online bullying starts the moment children have access to the internet. It can start in grade two,” she said.
She has seen the work of online sexual predators. She has seen young kids sexting. She has seen children get themselves into trouble with the law by doing something stupid or taking inappropriate photographs of others. “Young kids often don’t understand the consequences of their actions. Something they think is funny might actually be harmful. The age of legal liability in Australia is 10.”
How to get your teens off their phones at night. Post continues…
Research out of US, released by data analysis firm Influence Central last year, found 10 is the average age children are being given smartphones. It’s a stat likely reflected in Australia, and it’s two years younger than the average age of 12 seen in 2012.
McLean says the excuse parents so often use – that a smartphone is a safety measure – is “rubbish”.
“What’s going to happen? Your child’s walking down the street, approached by a predator, and has time to pull out their ‘safety’ phone and call you? It’s just unrealistic,” she said.
“There is nothing wrong with having a ‘dumb’ phone in the drawer at home, for your Year Six child to take with them to the movies so you know how to meet up afterwards, that’s okay. But a smartphone is not a safety measure. It’s bad parenting.”
The numbers are alarming.
When Jesse Weinberger, internet safety speaker and author of The Boogeyman Exists: And He’s in Your Child’s Back Pocket, surveyed 70,000 children over the last 18 months, she reportedly found that sexting begins in fifth grade and children as young as eight will use smart devices to access pornography.
Another study, published last year by Common Sense Media (a nonprofit organisation that reviews content and products for families), looked at the habits of 1,240 parents and children. This research found 50 per cent of children admitted to being addicted to their smartphones and 66 per cent of parents felt their children used mobile phones too much.
Problem is, the behaviour of parents says something else entirely.
“The age [children are allowed smartphones] is going to trend even younger, because parents are getting sick of handing heir smartphones to their kids,” chief executive of Influence Central Stacey DeBroff told The New York Times.
So is there a 'right' age to allow your child a smart phone?
Weinberger believes the older, the better in every instance: "The longer you keep Pandora's box shut, the better off you are. There's no connection to the dark side without the device," she said.
Other experts, such as James Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, says there is no 'one-size-fits-all' approach. "No two kids are the same and there's no magic number," he told The New York Times. "A kid's age is not as important as his or her own responsibility or maturity level."
For McLean, it's a non-negotiable 'no' for primary school age children. For kids in high school, it's a little different.
"They've often got a bit more independence and might be catching public transport to and from school. You also need to trust them a bit more," she said.
"But no parent should hand over a piece of equipment - technological or otherwise - unless they know how it works. You have to understand it first and to be in control of the device. You are the parent."
And that, right there, is key. How do you retain control over what is exposed to your child through that little piece of metal and glass in their back pocket? "Talk often and talk early," McLean said.
The 'stalker' app for parents. Post continues...
Schools also have a responsibility, McLean says. "The same way children are taught to write an essay or use a word document, they should be taught about respectful and responsible technology use. Cyber safety needs to be included in the curriculum."
Parents need to learn, too. There are controls that can restrict the amount of information children are able access through their smartphones. This comes back to parents understanding the device.
For iPhone users, there is a tab under Settings labelled 'Restrictions'. Here, parents can restrict the Safari browser from showing adult content, and enable and disable certain apps and features.
"You can disable the camera to ensure your child doesn't take inappropriate pictures of themselves or others, for example," McLean said. "Know the technology. Set clear rules and boundaries and have an active involvement in your child's safety online from the beginning."
For Android users, the app Qustodio, available on Google Play, lets parents monitor their children's text messages and disable access to specific apps at specific times. Parents can even shut off their child's phone remotely.
With this learning, McLean hopes the peer pressure placed upon parents - by their children and other parents, too - to allow their children smartphones at younger and younger ages might finally alleviate.
"Those parents doing the right thing feel pressure from the ground swell of people doing the wrong thing," she said. "There has to be active involvement from parents in controlling their children's access to smartphones. If there isn't, the consequences can be catastrophic."