Monday 17 December 2018

Dr Ciara Kelly: It's time to wise up and insist on 'dumbphones'

A third of children admit to chatting to strangers online
A third of children admit to chatting to strangers online

Ciara Kelly

I've been thinking long and hard about smartphones and children. Truthfully, it's been playing on my mind ever since Matthew Horan was convicted a few weeks ago of child exploitation after he convinced children as young as nine to send him explicit photos of themselves via various social media platforms like Snapchat, Instagram and Kik.

The children's parents were clearly - and understandably - distraught with one of the fathers describing himself as haunted by the thoughts of a paedophile preying on his child. One of the children even told Horan she was suicidal - but that didn't deter him from blackmailing her into sending more photographs. A parent's worst nightmare you will agree.

And there's been much debate about what the right way to tackle internet safety for our children might be. Much of what is said focuses on education. Educating our kids and educating ourselves as parents so we have the skills to protect them from what can harm them in the murky swamp that is the internet.

But the truth is that most parents aren't digital natives - they didn't grow up using the internet and half the time when they want to do something online they ask their kids how to do it. So they're playing catch up in this area.

Equally, the sheer pace of technology leaves many parents' skill levels outdated as soon as they're acquired. So even though parents most definitely need to up their game they are at a significant disadvantage here.

And with studies suggesting that a third of children admit to chatting to strangers online and another third never having discussed internet safety with their parents it is clear we are not getting to grips with this issue.

But I think we should ask ourselves this question: when we weigh up all the actual pros and cons do smartphones benefit or harm our kids lives overall?

Oh, I'll grant you they can learn a huge amount online, but that can be done on a PC in the kitchen too. And yes they can be contacted when they are out and about and we want to know where they are, but an old Nokia can be used for that. And yes they use them to socialise with their pals. But you know what? That's a double-edged sword and we all managed to socialise without them before they existed, and below a certain age is that how you want your kids to socialise anyway?

Now weigh that up against the cons. The heightened sense of anxiety around 'likes' and the mood disturbance caused by peer pressure and an appearance-driven 'selfie' culture. The addictive dopamine hit from notifications that means social media addiction is now a recognised mental health issue and the phone is in effect a digital drug. The fact that, routinely, kids - at whatever age you give them their first phone - will access pornography as a right of passage. The malign effects of cyber bullying. The risk of predatory adults using online platforms as the simplest and most effective way to target and groom kids. The basic lack of sleep!

I'm really not sure the benefits do outweigh the risks if we look at it critically. And I'm really not sure that our kids are better off for having these phones.

Very clearly what you can handle as a child isn't the same as what you can handle as an adult. We don't allow children to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes below a certain age for that very reason.

When I look at all the evidence of the negative versus the positive effects smartphones have on our children's lives I'm now of the mind we are sleepwalking into a major problem.

Why not let your children access the internet on the family PC that has proper privacy settings and where you can check the browsing history?

Or let them carry a 'dumbphone' if you need to contact them. But having them 'always on' isn't good for them.

Bring in a smartphone ban below the age of 16. Sometimes the adults must actually take the decision to parent not 'peerant'. We're getting this wrong.


Ciara presents Lunchtime Live on Newstalk Radio from 12-2 weekdays

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