It's a tough call: should you buy your child a mobile phone?
With the risk of costs running out of control and the dangers of bullying, it is hard to judge how old your child should be before you allow them to have a mobile phone, writes Carissa Casey
THE age profile of kids using mobile phones is getting younger every year. Many parents feel safer knowing that their children are just a phone call away.
But they are expensive gadgets, liable to be lost or stolen. The running costs can quickly get out of control.
Then there are the safety issues -- cyber bullying or, the latest craze, 'sexting'? What can a parent do to control costs and protect their children in the mobile world?
The biggest initial question for a lot of parents is what age a child should be before they are allowed to have a mobile phone.
A survey by the online parenting website Rollercoaster.ie (www.rollercoaster.ie) some years ago showed that 60pc of parents felt that mobile phones were suitable for children as young as 11.
But it is likely that the age profile has gotten even younger. For example, a recent UK survey showed that 35pc on eight-year-olds had a mobile phone.
The most common reason cited by parents for giving a mobile to a younger child is that it means the child is always contactable.
However, Rollercoaster founder and clinical child psychologist Anne O'Connor questions whether this is a good reason for giving a mobile to child as young as seven.
"Children of this age should never be left in unsupervised situations," she says. "Adults need to be close by so these children should not be 'out of contact'."
Rita O'Reilly of the National Parents' helpline (www.parentline.ie) understands the confusion that many parents feel.
"I'd say that 11 or 12 is old enough, but I must admit a few years ago I thought a kid should be at least into their teens," she says.
"The problem I have with giving one to a younger kid is that it's an expensive item. I think as a parent you need to be sure that they are ready for that responsibility."
Most experts agree that, before a child gets a mobile phone, a parent should discuss all the issues that might arise and set clear boundaries on usage.
"I think there has to be a level of trust between the parent and the child. I don't agree that you should check up on texts and what not. It's like reading their diary. If you're worried that there's a serious problem, that's different. But if you can't trust your kid to have a mobile phone without checking up on them all the time, then don't give it to them in the first place," says Ms O'Reilly.
The first limit up for discussion is usually the running cost. Most parents opt for a pre-pay phone so there is no danger of a child running up huge bills.
The Rollercoaster survey showed that 55pc of kids were allowed to spend €10 or less on their mobile phones a month.
"To be honest, I find kids are great at managing the costs if you set the boundaries for them. Teenagers are often far better than adults at figuring out the best deals and packages," says Ms O'Reilly.
Aside from running costs, parents should discuss with their children how and when the phone can be used.
Most schools operate a strict ban on mobile phones. Some insist they can't be taken into the school while others allow them in on the understanding that they are turned off during class time.
Another point worth discussing is the anti-social aspect of using a phone. Children like nothing better than texting friends, but are you happy as a parent for your child to start texting midway through an important conversation?
Like any other form of communication, whether it's simply chatting with people on the street or going online, there are dangers.
Children can receive inappropriate texts or get bullied.
Camera phones have created a host of new problems. A study by the Anti-bullying Centre at Trinity College Dublin showed that one-in-five students had embarrassing or nasty pictures and videos taken of them on mobile phone cameras. Often the photos are passed on to other friends or posted on websites for a global audience.
'The first line of protection is to talk to your kid about these dangers in advance," says Ms O'Reilly. "Make it clear that these kinds of texts aren't acceptable."
It's worth explaining to a child not to send a text or make a phone call when they are feeling angry or upset. Texts are non-verbal communications and sometimes they can seem nastier than intended.
If a child receives an inappropriate text, they should tell a parent or teacher immediately.
Keep a record of the texts, or note times and dates of phone calls, especially if the problem starts to get out of hand. Mobile phone companies operating in Ireland will provide a new phone number for free if a child is being bullied or harassed.