Blog by SafeToNet: a first smart phone?

Tuesday 11th February 2020 is Safer Internet Day. SafeToNet reflect on the concerns that many parents have about giving their children their first smartphone.

A recent post from LinkedIn encapsulates the concerns that many parents have about giving their children their first smartphone:

So, I have a dilemma, and don’t know what to do. My 11yr old daughter just got her school test results yesterday and we’re all very happy, but she went to a party today & came back a bit glum. It turns out all the other kids have been bought new smartphones (for getting their results) and were all adding each other to WhatsApp groups & the like.

I worry that a smartphone in an 11yr old’s hand is like a stick of dynamite and I don’t know if I have the knowledge and skills to protect a child from what lies within that device.

Maybe there are ways to protect from excessive screen-time, from dangerous material and dangerous people on a smartphone? Is there a particular App or type of smartphone which can help? I know I’m not the first to go through this fear so any guidance and help would be appreciated.

Does this resonate with you?

You’re right as a responsible parent to be concerned, and nasty things can happen online. The likelihood is that they will be perfectly fine and for the most part have a rich, rewarding and positive online experience, however, there are some steps that you can take to ensure that your they are as safe as possible and enjoy their online experience. There is no law about the minimum age for children to be on a social media platform, however, social media platforms do state a minimum age in their terms and conditions; this minimum age is usually 13, however, WhatsApp’s minimum age is 16. Due to these requirements, the children in the post technically shouldn’t even be on these sites.

An "easy" way to ensure your child is safe is to not allow them on these social media sites if they are too young to meet the age requirements.*US law on which the restricted age of 13 is based, is being updated to likely raise the age to 14 and 15 year olds.

The most likely harm a child will face online will be cyberbullying, which frequently occurs between peer groups - often from the same school. Social media sites can be used as a way to isolate people from activities and to undermine self-confidence. Due to its online nature, cyberbullying can happen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and this unremitting aspect can be highly dispiriting and damaging. But parental controls are not the only answer. 

What can you do if your child has been bullied?

These six steps might help:

  1. Talk to your child. Explain to them what bullying is and what it makes people feel like. Ask your child if anything like this is happening to them and what it makes them feel like. If your child discloses that they are being bullied, speak calmly and reassuringly to them and discuss what steps should be taken next. Listen. Your child may feel an array of emotions, and make sure they know that they can talk to you at any point in time. Ask your child what they have already tried to do to stop it.

  2. Keep talking to your child, reassuring them that they have done the right thing in telling you about the cyberbullying. Continuously take notes of what your child says, especially names, dates, what happened, and where it happened. Give your child some options to help – let them know about resources such as Childline and other anonymous ways to contact a counsellor. If your child is displaying signs of mental distress, you should take them to a GP. Tell the GP how the cyberbullying is affecting your child and, if necessary, ask the GP for a sick note which will give your child authorised absence from school.
  3. Tell a school teacher what has been happening and what your child has tried to do to stop it. Ask for a copy of the school’s Anti-Bullying Policy or Behavioural Policy, and ask for clarity on how the school handles incidents. Take notes of all meetings that take place. If you're not happy with the school response, you can follow the complaints procedure. You can find out more about this here. 
  4. Keep evidence of the bullying and keep a log: take screen shots and keep a note of times and dates that the bullying is happening. 
  5. Consider bullying face to face as well. Research shows that online bullying is most common in combination with face to face bullying, ofen in school. Ask your child about other types of bullying they may be experiencing. 
  6. Report to the online platforms: make sure you report the bullying to the online platforms involved. You can usually find the 'report' buttons on the apps / platforms themselves.

What should you do if you suspect your child is cyberbullying?

  1. Talk to your child and try to understand why this is happening. Make them aware that their behaviour is potentially very harmful, they may not realise they are doing it.
  2. Help them understand how the other child may have felt.
  3. Explain the potential consequences of their actions. You may want to talk to their school, or discipline them accordingly.
  4. Let them know that they can come to you if they have any questions in the future.

The line between victim and perpetrator can be blurred and complex. Sometimes children feel pressurised to participate in bullying behaviour because they fear being singled out and bullied themselves if they don’t join in. If your child feels intimidated or coerced to participate in this behaviour, they are being indirectly bullied. It is helpful to work out some strategies your child could use to distance themselves from the group or address the group’s behaviour.

Familiarise yourself with the apps your children use. You may already use some of them i.e. WhatsApp, and you may have never heard of them, i.e. TikTok, which had over a billion users before it entered mainstream media; the demographics show this platform is overwhelmingly used by teenagers. Use these apps to familiarise yourself, but maybe resist the temptation to join in with every conversation your child is having.

Whatever age your child is, it's good to be on your toes about what’s going on on social media sites. The younger the child is, the easier it is to be involved in their social media life, and they may well welcome your involvement. As they develop into adolescents, their desire for independence may begin to assert itself and they may want more privacy. We recommend you create good foundations early on, they should be in good stead as they grow up.

Although “parental controls” may not be as effective as the marketing messages might have you think, there are tools you can use that are more useful. The features we suggest you look for include:

  • Real time filtering of harmful messages that children write. It’s the sending of harmful messages that causes the problem, and not receiving them
  • Real-time advice and guidance for children which “nudges’ their online behaviour so that they are safer
  • Advice and guidance for parents so they can hold meaningful conversations with their children
  • Privacy of children’s content – it’s illegal and unethical for an app to show parents what their children are saying online. Children have rights too and these should be respected
  • Easy to understand “at a glance” dashboards that show online safety trends of children, and whether they are moving towards or away from online risk

For additional details about cyberbullying, please download these podcasts on the topic from the SafeToNet Foundation:

Choose Respect - with the Anti-Bullying Alliance

The power of zero - with No Bully's Nicholas Carlisle