Life Family Features

Thursday 22 March 2018

David Coleman: 'I would caution parents against snooping through their children's phones'

Clinical psychologist David Coleman
Clinical psychologist David Coleman

Parenting advice from clinical psychologist David Coleman

Q. Our eldest son has just turned 13 and is about to get his first mobile phone, which he has saved up for. He has been asking for a mobile phone for well over two years. He has never owned his own device before although he has been allowed limited access to screens in the house. My biggest concern therefore is how we go from limited time on screens owned by the household, to him owning his own device. I’d like us to manage it properly from the outset (he has a little brother watching like a hawk) and I would love your advice.


David answers: I agree with your premise of waiting until your child is 13 before letting him buy a phone. With my own children, the threshold was always when they reached 13 or started in secondary school, whichever came first.

Once youngsters are in secondary school they do need to have their own phone as it is central to their social lives.

Of course, there are many children who will have had a phone since they were 11, 10, or even younger. Those children enter secondary school like seasoned pros on Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram or whatever social media platform floats their boat.

While this may seem to give them an advantage, I don’t think your son will be at a disadvantage for not having had access to these social media.

In truth, he will, like most youngsters, take to social media with ease, falling into the habits and the freedom of expression, the nuance and complexity, with no great difficulty. Naturally, your son could make some mistakes when using social media, but he will quickly learn from them, with your support.

You may feel like it is your job to supervise his early use of his phone. You may be tempted to set up some monitoring system with him. You might persuade him to agree that he has to allow you his passwords so that you can view his correspondence with his friends to make sure it is appropriate.

I would counsel you against this. He needs his privacy and he needs to become responsible for his own use of his phone.

When he buys himself his mobile phone, and you have acceded that this is an appropriate age for him to have a phone, then you must have reached your decision because he seems old enough to be trusted.

But if you trust him, then you trust him.

Trusting him doesn’t involve monitoring him, supervising him or checking him. Trusting him means letting him at it. Trusting him means allowing him the freedom to use his phone for whatever he wants without physical intervention or inspection from you.

That is not to say that you don’t take an interest in his phone use, or that you don’t set up, clearly, what your expectations are for his phone use. It is a good idea for you and he to sit down and to talk about the dangers of the internet, as well as the benefits.

It is a good idea for you to talk about how you expect him to treat his friends on social media and to talk about the risks involved in over-sharing, or being disrespectful online.

Your conversations with him should be all about your family values and how you expect him to apply the same values in his social media and online presence. Your conversations with him are not just a once-off chat (like the old sense of “the talk” about sex), but are the start of a process of engaging with him about what he does online and how he acts online.

By all means help him, too, with setting some limits on his time on his phone. So, agree with him about having no phone past a certain hour at night (keeping his phone charging in the kitchen could be a good idea), no phones at mealtimes, or homework times and so on. You can support him in these practical issues, by noticing his habits and keeping him on the straight and narrow.

But, when it comes to his online behaviour I would caution you against snooping (either secretly or upfront). If he makes mistakes, they will be evident and you can review them with him to help him learn from them. But start on the basis of trust and let him try to apply the values that your family upholds.

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