Sunday 19 November 2017

In my opinion: Get clued in about smartphones for kids

Picture posed
Picture posed

Alex Cooney

My six-year-old recently asked me if she could have a phone for Christmas. I provided a pretty emphatic response in the negative, which was not difficult as she's still so young, but the pressure will start to mount as she gets older.

For those parents taking the leap, I would suggest that before you do, and certainly before you hand the device over, you do some groundwork.

Our kids are growing up in a deeply-connected world and are fluent in the use of technology in a way that most of their parents never will be. We talk to kids all the time about technology through our CyberSafeSchools programme and they love it. The majority of the kids we talk to, aged between eight and 13, already have access to the internet and have a notable online presence through social media platforms and gaming. Our focus is on educating them (and their parents!) to use the technology responsibly and in a way that doesn't put themselves or others at risk.

If you're buying a smartphone or video game console for your child this Christmas, consider how you can make it as safe as possible for them to use before you give it to them. For the less tech-savvy among us, the easiest way to do this is to put the device name into Google and the question 'how to make safe?' and you will find lots of options. Most devices have technical settings that you can use to restrict what they can access and YouTube can be helpful in showing you how.

Next, consider what they can access through the device. Again, it's important to do some research. Ask your child what they would like to use the device for (i.e. apps like Snapchat or Musical.ly or games like Minecraft) and maybe do some research together, including looking at the minimum ages for using these apps. Find out what the risks are and if you are going to allow your child to use it, investigate the app's privacy settings first. Don't assume that things are age-appropriate - always check it out first.

We have come across games with a PEGI rating of 3, which would indicate that it is appropriate for that age group and up, that are essentially a chat room where strangers have access to your child. Such access is an important consideration in any game that has an online and multi-player function.

Most smartphones come with the geo-location setting switched to 'on' by default. This means that any photo your child takes using that device has the specific location stored in the photo. Location can also be shared by the apps themselves. Do a Google search to find out how to turn off location-sharing for the specific device or individual apps.

Technical controls can certainly be helpful in supporting your child's safe use of the technology, especially for younger children (before they have worked out the numerous ways around them), but the key thing to remember is that there really is no substitute for parental supervision and guidance.

If your child has a device and if they are online, it should always be under your watchful eye with clear rules agreed in advance. Be consistent with these, model the behaviour when you can and don't forget that kids need constant reminders.

Alex Cooney is co-founder and CEO of CyberSafeIreland, a not-for-profit organisation which provides training on internet safety for kids in fourth to sixth class

Irish Independent

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