The average age for a child to have their first phone in Ireland is 12. But when is the ideal time to introduce them into their lives? We asked the experts
When I was a child, the phone sat on a table in the hall (or in a phone box on the street). I had little interest in it until I became a teenager and was then regularly chastised for spending too much time on it (half an hour in a day was deemed a shocking amount).
Today, phones are a whole other entity — no one is ever without one, more frequently looking at it than talking into it — and no age is exempt from its temptations, from elderly grannies conversing through WhatsApp to young children using it to play Minecraft.
But experts have warned that too much time spent on mobile phones can cause problems for children, with the HSE citing poor sleep patterns, obesity and issues with language development as some of the reasons why parents should limit their children’s exposure to phones.
Unsupervised phone time can also lead to other problems such as online bullying, gaming addiction, and more. These issues aside, the average age for a child to have their first phone in Ireland is 12 (or 10.3, according to international surveys) but some parents are holding off until they are older, while others are allowing their child to have a mobile at an earlier age.
Ollwyn Moran lives with her two sons, Matthew (16) and Alex (14) in Dublin. As a neuro-development therapist and the founder of Cognikids, she has “passionate thoughts” about phone usage for all ages and didn’t allow her children to have a phone until after their Junior Cert.
“I felt it was important for them to have developed more of their own personality, independence and life experience before introducing phones,” she says. “I also wanted to teach them to value experiences rather than materialistic things. Getting a phone for your confirmation is a waste as there is always a newer version and many little ones will drop or break their phones. So when Matthew asked in sixth class, I explained my rationale to him and said it was too much responsibility to put on a 12-year-old. I also went through some research and development issues and said I wanted him to pick an experience rather than a ‘thing’ for his confirmation present.
“He actually said he would like to go to Rome (this wasn’t what I had in mind), but I managed to book myself and the two boys for two nights there for less than the cost of the phone — and he still talks about the trip.”
When her younger son reached the same age, he also chose a trip over a phone, and she says the memories will stay with them forever. But while both boys were happy at the time, they did continue to ask again — she did, however, keep her resolve, despite pressure from her sons and other parents.
“It wasn’t easy and there have been many times when it would have been handier to give in and let them have the phone, but that wouldn’t have been teaching them much, so I stood firm,” she says. “I also got a lot of stick from parents. One time, I was even called a ‘Hitler Mom’. But rather than react, I said ‘thank you’ so the other mom had nowhere to go as I didn’t crumble or get embarrassed.
“It’s our job as parents to stick to hard decisions, and many have said they admire my consistency and that they would just give in. But that’s their issue, not mine. However, I know I’m lucky that the boys go to school and play sports locally, so they don’t ‘need’ a phone for commuting. If they did, it would be a very basic one without internet.”
Bethan O’Riordan has opposing views and believes that learning about technology is important for children. So when her nine-year-old son asked for a phone last Christmas, she believed it would be of benefit to him.
“Santa got Finlay a €35 second-hand phone, despite the fact the shop owner felt an iPhone would be better so kids wouldn’t ‘make fun of him at school’,” she says. “But getting the phone wasn’t about him fitting in or being cool, it was to help him understand technology — and it has been amazing.
“His guitar teacher sent him a YouTube playlist of songs which he listens to and also sends him music to learn. He downloads this himself and practises in his own time — and recently spent two hours practising — I’m sure this is because he has the autonomy to choose when. He has also started following other musicians, is teaching himself ukulele and also uses it to watch highlights from his favourite soccer and GAA teams.”
The mother-of-three, who is a psychotherapist, says without any apps or SIM card, her son’s phone is perfect for his needs, which will change as he gets older.
“We try to trust our kids and their innate ability to do what is right for them,” she says. “Of course, we know the internet can be a dangerous place, but we will inform ourselves and then empower our children, when we need to. So for the moment, this is right for us — and our future rock star!”
Child psychologist Peadar Maxwell says it can be difficult to decide when to allow the first mobile phone, but says once it has happened, rules must be put in place.
“There is no use pretending technology doesn’t exist or ignoring benefits for parents and their children in terms of keeping in contact in a busy world,” he says. “But once your child has a smartphone there’s no going back. So always agree on the rules about use before you give your child a new device, not afterwards — and agree on a curfew time so that their study, family time and sleep is not negatively impacted.
“The actual age depends on your routine, times of separation and your child’s ability to handle a device — and remember that you are giving your child internet access and all of the risks associated with that.”
Stella O’Malley, psychotherapist and author of Cotton Wool Kids, agrees.
“Many kids receive a phone at around 12 and that seems sensible. However, the age isn’t as important as the rules,” she says. “It’s extremely important that parents retain control, know the passwords and “own” the phone.
“This idea that it is the child’s phone as they bought it with confirmation money can be damaging as the parent loses all control. I reckon a phone which remains under parental control is more important than the age of the child when they get it. But ultimately, I think parents need to remember that they are the world experts on their children and it’s important we raise our kids according to our own values. Otherwise, what is the point of it all?”
But despite this, O’Malley says that it is still important to be aware of the potential danger children can come across online, particularly if parents are planning on giving their child a phone at an early age.
“Children can inadvertently find themselves in adult zones, so it is essential that parents put controls in place in the form of iKydz or Circle or some other parental control,” she advises.
“They need to make sure they protect their kids from horrible images they could accidentally be exposed to. So I would urge caution if at all possible.
“I know parents know their children best, however, there is a multi-billion-dollar industry actively attempting to ensure that children are on devices all the time. It is difficult for adults to withstand the insidious ploys these companies engage in to make sure we all remain on our devices, and it’s even harder for children.”