Mobile phones, kids and teenagers – when is the right time? What’s the right phone or plan? If you’re trying to decide whether your child is ready for a mobile phone, it might help to understand the advantages and disadvantages of their use.
Mobile phones, kids and teenagers
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 his peers 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. 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 could talk to the parents of your child’s friends about the kinds of phones and plans their children 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 also use their phones to go online, take pictures and make videos, play games, listen to music, keep up with social media and much more. So you’ll need to look at data allowances as well as text and call limits.
It can be a good idea 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.
Mobile phones: advantages
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.
- Make sure your child knows how to use the phone’s speed dial to call emergency numbers.
Your child’s mobile phone will keep him in touch with friends and family. It can promote your child’s sense of belonging and connection.
Mobile phones can give your child a creative outlet and a chance to practise creative thinking and skills. For example, your child might be interested in using the phone to create and edit digital content.
Promoting safe and responsible mobile phone use
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, and where your child can use the phone.
For example, to avoid cyberbullying and sexting risks, it’s best not to allow mobile phones in children’s bedrooms at night. Your child can charge the phone in a family area instead.
You can encourage responsible phone use by modelling it yourself. For example, if you have a rule about not using phones during family mealtimes, you should follow this rule yourself.
You might also want to talk about and agree on consequences if your family’s mobile phone rules are broken.
It’s a good idea to find out about 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 her mobile phone number can help keep her safe. For example, you might make a rule that she shares it only with close friends and family.
Avoiding big mobile phone bills
A good first step in avoiding big bills is helping your child understand that his phone is like a wallet, and that every text message, phone call or download costs money.
Other ways that you and your child can avoid big mobile phone bills include:
- discussing the cost of mobile phone use and agreeing on a monthly budget
- starting with a prepaid plan. The call, text and data rates are generally more expensive than post-paid plans, but you can set a monthly limit
- 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, send texts and download data (at a more expensive rate) after she’s gone over the 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)
- alerting your child to hidden costs – for example, costs of downloading new music or apps, making in-app purchases, texting to get a new ringtone or voting on a reality TV show using SMS. You can set ground rules about not texting advertised numbers, and not purchasing or downloading content without your permission.
You could encourage responsible use by agreeing to reward your child if he uses his phone responsibly – for example, with an upgraded handset or plan after 6 or 12 months.
Using mobile phones to go online
Nearly all phones can access the internet.
This means your child can download and upload text, images, video, games and apps. She can also update profiles and post on social media.
You could consider choosing not to get a data plan until your child is older and you’re confident he’s making good choices as a responsible digital citizen. You can also explain that downloading some kinds of data – such as music and video – might take your child over his data limit.
If your child is younger than 13 – the age you’re allowed to have an account on many social media sites – it might be better for her to have a phone that can just make and receive calls and text messages.
Using mobile phone location services
Mobile phones have a feature called geolocation, which can identify the phone’s physical location. Location-based services (such as maps) automatically use this data. The data can also be attached to photos on the phone, or social media updates.
To keep your child safe, check which location services are enabled on his mobile phone and switch off the ones he doesn’t need.
You can also talk with your child about:
- being careful about checking into a social media site from her mobile phone – this can let people know where she is, what she’s doing and where she has been
- checking that she isn’t showing her location to nearby people she doesn’t know
- making sure she checks with her friends before she tags them in photos or checks them to a location.
Avoiding mobile phone ‘addiction’
Many teenagers develop a strong sense of ownership and attachment to their mobile phones. They can be very upset if the phone is taken away or lost. These tips might help avoid this issue:
- Back up the content of your child’s phone on your home computer every few weeks.
- Think about including mobile screen time in your child’s daily screen time allowance and 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 his phone. You can be a role model by showing your child that you can have time away from your phone too!
- 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. Reassure her that you won’t take away her phone if she reports something worrying to you.
Handling bullying and sexting concerns
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.
You and your child should also be aware of sexting. You can minimise the risks by talking to your child about:
- appropriate use of his 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 is happy to have taken and circulated
- your child’s attitudes towards the opposite sex
- the legal implications of sexting.
Cyberbullying and sexting can be very distressing. If your child is being bullied or is involved in sexting, she needs your help. If your child is the one doing the bullying, you also need to take action.
Mobile phones and radiation
In recent years, there have been claims that electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones can cause brain tumours.
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 he isn’t using it
- 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.
Of children aged 8-9 years, 11% have their own mobile phone, as do 35% of children aged 10-11 years, 67% of children aged 12-13 years, 87% of children aged 14-15 years and 94% of young people aged 16-17 years.