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Mobile phones are popular with Australian teenagers. If you’re trying to decide whether your child’s ready for a mobile, it might help to understand the advantages and disadvantages of their use.

Teen boy texting on a mobile phone

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Research says that Australian kids aged 12-17 years spend much more time texting on their mobiles than they do talking - almost three times as much, in fact.

 

The basics

There are no hard and fast rules about the right age to give your child a mobile phone. But as your child approaches high school, it’s likely that others in his peer group will start to get their own mobiles, and your child might want one too.

When your child says she wants a mobile phone, you could talk to her about why she wants one. What does she want to do with it? Do many of her friends have mobiles? Try to understand why she feels it’s important to have her own phone. These conversations will help you decide if you’re comfortable with the idea.

If you decide to go ahead with it, you might like to talk to the parents of your child’s friends about the kinds of phones and plans they have. This can help you settle on the right phone and service for your child.

When choosing a phone and plan, bear in mind that teenagers often use mobiles differently from adults – for example, they text far more than they voice call. Teenagers are also rapidly shifting towards using mobile phones as multimedia devices. This is because mobiles can be used as web browsers, cameras, photo albums, diaries, address books, MP3 players, game consoles and more. 

Advantages of mobile phones

Networking
A mobile phone will almost certainly become a very important communication and networking tool for your child. A phone of his own can promote your child’s sense of belonging and connection to both friends and family. It lets him stay in touch anytime and anywhere.

Safety
Mobile phones are one way for you and your child to contact each other whenever you need to. It can give you peace of mind and help keep your child safe when she’s out without adult supervision – but don’t rely solely on a mobile to keep her safe.

Here are some tips for using mobiles to promote safety:

  • Let your child know he can call or text you at any time if he needs your help.
  • Familiarise your child with the speed dial function on the phone. Store the numbers she can call in case of an emergency.
  • Program your own number into the phone and save it under the name ICE (in case of emergency). If your child’s involved in an accident when you’re not with him, emergency services or others can call the ICE number to alert you. Note that this will be helpful only if the mobile phone isn’t protected by a pin or password.

Skill development
A mobile phone will give your child the opportunity to develop mobile communication etiquette, and media and communication skills.

Disadvantages and what to do about them

You can head off some of the disadvantages that might come with teenage mobile phone use by promoting safe and responsible mobile phone behaviour. To start with, it’s a good idea to establish rules, such as:

  • when it’s OK to take calls or reply to texts
  • when the phone should be on silent or switched off
  • whether your child’s allowed to have the phone in her room at night.

You might want to talk about and agree on consequences if the rules are broken.

You could also find out your child’s school’s policy on mobile phone use, and make sure your child knows what it is.

Talking to your child about limiting who should have his mobile phone number can help keep him safe. For example, you might suggest he shares it only with close friends and family, not strangers or people he doesn’t know well.

Big phone bills
You and your child can avoid big mobile phone bills by:

  • discussing the cost of mobile phone use and agreeing on a monthly budget
  • starting with a prepaid plan. The call and text rates are generally more expensive than post-paid plans, but you can set a monthly limit. Once the credit’s used up, your child can still receive calls and texts, play games or listen to music, but she can’t make calls or send text messages until her credit is topped up
  • being aware that it can be easy to run up a large bill on a post-paid plan. This is because your child can continue to make calls and send texts (at a more expensive rate) after she’s gone over the voice/text monthly allowance
  • discussing with your child what the consequences will be if she goes over the plan cost when using a post-paid plan
  • disabling MMS messages (photos and video) – MMS messages can be expensive, and most services give you the option of disabling them
  • alerting your child to hidden costs – for example, texting to a mobile number to receive a ringtone (these are generally subscriptions that incur ongoing costs) or voting on a reality TV show via SMS (these texts can be charged at a higher rate than normal text messages). Discuss these issues with your child, and set ground rules – these could include not texting advertised numbers, and not purchasing or downloading content without your permission.
If your child uses his phone responsibly, you might like to reward him with an upgraded handset or plan after 6 or 12 months.

Accessing the internet
Many phones are now ‘web-capable’. With a data plan, your child could access the internet and download and upload text, images, video, games and other programs or applications. It’s very difficult to monitor or supervise your child’s internet access on her phone.

You could consider choosing not to get a data plan until your child is older and you’re confident he’s a responsible ‘cybercitizen’. It might also be a good idea to explain that downloading some kinds of data – such as music and video – might go over your child’s data limit.

    Mobile ‘addiction’
    Many teenagers develop a strong sense of ownership and attachment to their mobile phones. They can be very upset if the phone’s taken away or lost. The following tips might help:

    • Back up the content of your child’s phone on your home computer every few weeks.
    • Agree on some ‘phone-free’ time on a weekly or daily basis. This is a good idea if you’re concerned your child is becoming too attached to her phone.
    • Take the phone away only when you’ve agreed in advance with your child that this will be the consequence for not following agreed phone rules.
    • Teenagers sometimes lose or damage a phone or two before they learn to look after them, so it might be best to give your child an inexpensive handset as his first phone. When he shows that he can take care of a phone, you can reward him by giving him a more expensive model. Negotiate with your child about how you’ll deal with replacing a lost or damaged phone before it happens – for example, by deciding who’ll pay for a new handset.

    Bullying and ‘sexting’
    Using mobile phones can expose teenagers to cyberbullying. If you suspect your child is being bullied via mobile phone, you can encourage your child to talk to you about what’s going on. Asking your child’s school for help is also an idea.

      You and your child should also be aware of ‘sexting’ (sending sexually explicit photo or video content via mobile phone). You can minimise the risk of your child being involved in this behaviour by talking to your child about:

      • appropriate use of her mobile phone – for example, when it’s appropriate to use the phone to take pictures or video
      • the images your child thinks are appropriate to take and send to others
      • the images of himself that your child’s happy to have taken and circulated
      • your child’s attitudes towards the opposite sex
      • the legal implications of sexting.
      Research shows that bullying by mobile phone and sexting can be very distressing. These behaviours should be taken seriously. If your child’s being bullied or is involved in sexting, she needs your help. If your child’s the one engaged in bullying behaviour, you also need to take action.

      Radiation concerns
      In recent years, there have been claims that electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones can cause brain tumours. But research findings are inconclusive. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that, in the large number of studies conducted over the last two decades, ‘no adverse health effects have been established for mobile phone use’. But WHO also provides advice about how to reduce your exposure to electromagnetic radiation from mobile phone use.

      If you’re concerned about radiation from mobile phones, you can advise your child to:

      • not carry the phone on his body (such as in a pocket)
      • switch the phone to ‘flight mode’ when it’s not in use, such as overnight (other functions, such as the alarm, will still work)
      • consider using a headset when possible
      • limit the duration of calls and/or texts whenever possible
      • use the mobile phone in areas with good coverage – this means the phone will transmit at reduced power.

      Mobile phones: facts and stats

      • Mobile phones are very popular with teenagers – 76% of kids aged 12-14 years and 90% of kids aged 15-17 years have mobiles.
      • Girls tend to use their mobiles more than boys. They spend an average of 14 minutes texting and 7 minutes talking a day. Boys spend 9 minutes texting and 4 minutes talking.
      • The majority of sexting is carried out by young men circulating images and videos of young women. But young women also send images of young men.
      • Among kids aged 12-14 years, 20% own phones with advanced features. The percentage goes up with age – 34% of those aged 15-17 years have advanced phones.
      • On average, boys aged 11-18 years spend 1 hour and 14 minutes consuming mobile media. The average for girls of the same age is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
      • Among kids aged 8-17 years, 22% use their mobile phones to take photos, 16% use mobiles for playing games, 10% use mobiles to listen to the radio, 7% use mobiles to record video footage, and 3% use mobiles to TV shows or clips.
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      • Last Updated 22-09-2010
      • Last Reviewed 28-09-2010
      • Acknowledgements

        Amanda Third, University of Western Sydney, and Ingrid Richardson, Murdoch University.

      • Australian Bureau of Statistics (2010). Household use of information technology, Australia [Cat no. 8146.0]. Retrieved September 6, 2011, from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/8146.0.

        Australian Communication and Media Authority (2010). Trends in media use by children and young people: Insights from the Kaiser Family Foundation's Generation M2 2009 (USA), and results from the ACMA's Media and communications in Australian families 2007. Retrieved October 13, 2011, from http://www.acma.gov.au/webwr/_assets/main/lib310665/trends_in_media_use_by_children_and_young_people.pdf.

        INTERPHONE Study Group (2010). Brain tumor risk in relation to mobile phone use: Results of the INTERPHONE international case-control study. International Journal of Epidemiology, 39(3), 675-694.

        Roy Morgan Research (2006), Young Australians Survey, April 2005-March 2006. Melbourne.

        World Health Organization (2010). Electromagnetic fields and public health: Mobile phones [WHO fact sheet no. 193]. Retrieved October 13, 2011, from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs193/en/.