By | November 14, 2023
The debate: Does the government's smartphone strategy go far enough?  An internet security expert versus a psychotherapist

Alex Cooney: No. We know that children are online at home, in their bedrooms, late at night; we need a much more ambitious strategy

Little done, much more to do. That’s my take on the Department for Education’s plan for new guidelines for smartphone use by primary school-aged children.

While I welcome Education Minister Norma Foley’s efforts to address the very real harm that children can suffer online, they do not go far enough.

There is a unique emphasis on smartphones when, based on recent CyberSafeKids research, children aged eight to 10 are much more likely to own a tablet (60 percent) or a games console (40 to 50 percent). These devices have the same capabilities as a smartphone in terms of online access, so narrowing the focus solely to smartphone use is very much a partial solution.

We speak to thousands of children every year about how to be safe and smart online and the reality is that they are often online at home, in their bedrooms, late into the night: unlimited, unmonitored access to the internet that will continue regardless of these guidelines.

80 percent of primary school children we surveyed told us they were allowed to have a smart device in their bedroom, and more than 30 percent of them told us they could “go online whenever they wanted”. The feedback from an 11-year-old boy is more than likely a widespread reality: “My mom turns off the PlayStation at 11 or 12 at night but then I go on my tablet and she doesn’t know.” Lack of sleep and exposure to scary or disturbing content has a real impact on our children’s mental health.

The focus must be on protecting and empowering children online by properly equipping them to be online safely and smartly. And this is where the minister’s initiatives could be much more ambitious.

Much like we prepare kids to ride bikes safely and get them to the point where they can ride off with their friends independently, we need to take the same approach with kids who are online. There are great benefits in the online world, but they need to be properly prepared for it. It requires continuous support — at home through their parents or guardians and at school through our education system. Faced with the billions of euros of resources from big tech – whose business model must be supported by expanding their user base – government funding for basic online education for our children only scratches the surface.

It is not the government’s job to tell parents how to be parents, but there are several things they could do to give parents and teachers the support and guidance that children so desperately need. These include public information campaigns (such as the RSA’s road safety campaigns), signposting parents to the many excellent resources available to guide their decisions about what children should have access to online and at what age they should access it more independently. We want to see parents who can make informed decisions about the right age to give their child a smart device, and how to handle the enormous pressure they will face from their children because “everyone has one”.

We also need to ensure that our education system is adapted for the digital age. Digital media literacy and online safety are peripheral subjects in the curriculum and that needs to change. This subject should be the fourth pillar of the education system, alongside reading, writing and numeracy, as it would reflect the lived reality of children growing up in a digital age and better equip them to navigate the online world safely. They should also include appropriate support and funding for those organizations like our own that are trying to meet the huge demand that is out there for online security advice and support.

Together with other child-oriented organizations, we have for many years pursued this goal of change. And while some progress is being made, including these guidelines and the Online Safety and Media Regulation Act, there is room for so much more. More to do; we do it.

  • Alex Cooney is CEO and co-founder of CyberSafeKids

Joanna Fortune: Yes. An outright ban on smartphones would be pointless. Much better to bring parents

Norma Foley plans to issue guidelines encouraging parents to avoid buying smartphones for elementary school-age children. These guidelines are intended to support primary schools and parents of younger children who wish to develop a voluntary smartphone-free policy for their school. On the surface it all sounds good – but the word “voluntary” has sparked reactions from some that the government’s plan doesn’t go far enough. This includes those who believe the Education Minister should have issued an outright ban on smartphones for this age group.

I am not advocating smart devices for primary school age children – my view is that the risks far outweigh any potential benefits such technology could bring to this age group. As parents, I believe we need to work together to delay access to social media and smartphones for young children. And yet I do not think that an outright ban is warranted; the government’s guidelines go a long way.

A ban would be a directive that the government imposes on families and schools – but by definition, anything that is imposed is non-cooperative and doesn’t include people in the decision-making. A blanket ban would be pointless because it would be impractical to enforce or monitor — and what would be the consequences of acting against this directive? It may ultimately seem tokenistic, while government-issued guidelines anchored in evidence of the potential harms caused by early access to technology provide parents with informed decision-making.

If a parent is on the fence about whether or not to give their child a smartphone, these guidelines—combined with a voluntary no-smartphone policy within the school community—may be enough to tip off the decision to say no to giving their child a phone at this age. I am in favor of a more collaborative, active decision-making process between parents and educators. When the stakeholders in a situation are actively involved in the decision-making process, the result is often more positive decisions, a higher degree of transparency around the decision-making processes and ultimately greater acceptance and compliance with the guidelines. Given the futility of enforcing an outright ban, the government’s approach is sensible.

A more collaborative decision-making process also strengthens communication and trust within the group or community that will ultimately be affected. If we want (and we want this) parents to subscribe to a policy that advocates postponing the access point to smartphones until they are in high school, then it is important to ensure that there is good communication and trust within the school parent communities.

It is naive to think that every parent will follow these guidelines, just as it is naive to think that all parents would follow an outright ban. Instead, the hope is that a critical mass of parents and school communities will subscribe to this practice until it becomes atypical for an elementary school-aged child to have a smartphone rather than atypical not to have one.

Families who are co-parenting or juggling complex childcare/school arrangements may argue that their children need a telephone so that arrangements can be communicated to them. It’s not for me to say whether this is a valid position, but the majority of school parents who advocate for smartphones can encourage parents to explore alternatives, such as a simple text-only phone.

But guidelines alone are not enough; the policy should also include a proactive education component where children and parents are educated about digital/media literacy, healthy use and responsible engagement with technology, and staying safe online.

  • Joanna Fortune is a psychotherapist and author of the “15 Minute Parenting” series of books

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