Lifestyle: Too young to handle a handset

Photo: Nick Ansell/PA Wire
Photo: Nick Ansell/PA Wire
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As more and more parents give their children mobile phones, Lisa Salmon asks if it is a good idea.

Increasing numbers of children, some as young as six, are now being given mobile phones.

In fact, a recent study by The Marketing Store found that 73per cent of British 10-year-olds own a mobile, as do 24per cent of eight-year-olds and 6per cent of six-year-olds.

The reason behind this might be because mums and dads simply succumb to nagging, but more often than not, it’s to ease parents’ safety fears when their kids are out and about.

While children having a mobile connection may help parents feel their kids are safer though, it’s important to remember there’s much more to modern mobiles than just the handset.

An additional survey by mobile phone insurance company, mobileinsurance.co.uk, showed that 58per cent of parents admit they don’t keep an eye on what their children (under 10) are actually using their mobiles for, raising obvious concerns that children may be accessing unsuitable content on the internet, or being bullied via their mobiles.

When asked why they didn’t check, 42per cent of parents said they never got round to it, 27per cent didn’t want to intrude on their child’s privacy, and 13per cent said they trusted their youngster.

Jason Brockman, director of mobileinsurance.co.uk, warns parents they have to be more alert.

“It’s not a case of invading children’s privacy, it should be seen as a way of keeping them safe,” he stresses.

Unrestricted internet access, talking to strangers and bullying aren’t the only problems with children’s mobile phone use either.

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics earlier this year revealed that mobile phone theft victims are most likely to be youngsters aged 14 to 17 years, with their victimisation rate being twice as high as the average, at around 4per cent.

To try to reduce the chances of children’s mobiles being stolen, it’s a good idea to get an old, cheap handset - perhaps one passed down by a parent or an older sibling.

Sadly though, whatever the type of mobile a child owns, figures suggest using any one puts them at greater risk of being injured or killed in a road accident.

The road safety lobbying group RoadSafe and AXA car insurance recently found that 11 years old is both the highest accident risk age for child pedestrians - and the average age a child receives their first mobile phone.

By the age of 12, 25per cent of kids admit they’ve been distracted by personal technology when crossing a road.

Jeremy Todd, chief executive of parenting charity Family Lives, says: “It’s clear that mobile phones can be a potential distraction for children - and indeed adults - as they walk the streets, with texting and social media messages a particular concern.

“Children may be unaware of the risks around them when out and about on busy streets, so it’s vital that parents sit down with them to discuss the potential risks of using mobile phones when out in public.”

Todd acknowledges that giving a child a mobile phone can be a difficult decision for parents, and urges them to ask themselves whether their child really needs a mobile phone, and whether they’d actually be able to use it in an emergency.

“If you’re getting a phone, pick one you feel your child can manage.

“There’s no point in having an ‘all singing, all dancing’ phone if they aren’t going to be able to work it,” he advises.

Again though, it can seem that the pros outweigh these cons, with some separated parents liking their children to have mobile phones because it’s easier to keep in touch with them, and many parents also feeling more confident about giving their child more independence, for example walking home from school alone, if they have the safety net of a mobile.

So, if you have decided it is right for your child to have a mobile, what boundaries do you need to set.

Firstly, rules should be made about the time spent talking on the phone, so you don’t get astronomical phone bills. Parents need to talk openly to children about extra costs that might be incurred if they use the internet for example.

Also speak openly and clearly about cyberbullying, and encourage your children to talk to an adult if they have any concerns about this.

Todd also suggests parents might want to ban the mobile phone in the bedroom at night, as research shows that children (and adults) don’t sleep as soundly if the mobile is by the bed.

The mobile should also be banned at other times, he says, like meals, or when children are supposed to be doing their homework.

Parents of older children should also ensure they understand the potential dangers and consequences of sending explicit photos or sexual texts.

“Basically though, if you have any doubts about your child using their mobile, monitor the situation and let them know that you’ll be checking as and when you see fit,” Todd stresses.

“They need to prove to you that they can be responsible.”

Parents can ask their children’s mobile provider to block access to websites unsuitable for the under 18s (for more information visit the Ofcom website at: consumers.ofcom.org.uk).