When it comes to the great parental dilemma of our time, when to get kids a smartphone, the folks at Greystones decided there was strength in numbers.
Before the summer holidays, amid concerns that phones were causing anxiety and exposing children to inappropriate adult material, eight primary schools in and around the Co Wicklow town came together to formulate a collective approach.
They agreed with parent associations that no phones would be allowed until high school.
Almost half a year in and parents, children and their teachers have hailed it as a great success.
Rachel Harper, headteacher at Saint Patrick’s Primary School, said the deal made for an easier summer for parents who were previously torn between the pressure on their children to own a phone and the risks involved.
“They may have been under pressure to buy a phone. But because of this initiative, they were able to say to their child … we’ve signed this, we’re going to wait with many of the other parents in your class and wait until high school .”
The decision has trickled down across society. Children are unlikely to encounter peers with phones when they go to their GAA, rugby or tennis clubs, according to Harper.
“People would ask for a phone for their birthday and they’d say ‘oh every other kid in my class has a smartphone’ and that’s how it starts,” notes one of the school’s students, nine-year-old Rachel Capatina, neatly encapsulating a dilemma that governments, policy makers and parents have struggled to resolve.
Her 11-year-old sister Jane was among the children who wanted a phone but is happy with the policy.
“Personally, I wanted a phone last year. But then I thought: what’s even the point that it’s just going to be a distraction for me?” she asks.
Inspired by this approach, the government this week agreed guidelines it hopes will encourage other parents to follow suit.
Education Minister Norma Foley has asked parents to make a “collective decision” not to buy smartphones until secondary school, and will send guidelines to all primary schools.
But can a voluntary approach in an idyllic town like Greystones realistically be expected to take hold across the country?
And does the government’s decision just put all the pressure on the parents, while letting the tech companies off the hook?
In 2020, CyberSafeKids found that 84% of 8-12 year olds in Ireland were on social media platforms (despite most claiming to have age restrictions).
A quarter of all Irish children have seen or experienced something online in the last year that disturbed them, with a third of them keeping it to themselves rather than telling a parent or someone else.
The smartphone is just the tool that offers the gateway to cyberspace, according to a world expert in this field, cyberpsychologist Professor Mary Aiken.
So asking parents not to give their children a phone is like asking someone not to get in a car, rather than having speed limits, speed cameras and patrols in place to ensure their safety, she said.
Even if phones are removed, “they have iPads, they have wearable technology, they have computers”.
“The smartphone is the tool that offers you a gateway to the Internet, to social media, to social technology, to search engines. Taking away that tool does not solve the problem. The problem is in cyberspace, and children grow up in that environment.”
“Asking parents not to give their children a phone is like asking someone not to get in a car”
The Online Safety Act, passed by the Oireachtas last year, requires tech companies to enforce age limits and age verification on their platforms.
But Prof Aiken has called for more robust classification systems to identify specific online harms.
Following the British example, these could potentially include sexual harm, physical harm such as lack of sleep and lack of concentration; harm through aggression such as bullying or cyberstalking, and harm to mental health.
With such a framework or classification system, regulation or legislation could be applied to address them one by one and make cyberspace safer for children.
Another approach in UK legislation, adopted in recent months, is the development of an “online security technology sector” that offers technical solutions to technical problems.
“This includes age verification technology so that children do not volunteer their age. There are robust metrics to ensure that the child is old enough to be on site,” Prof Aiken said.
Technologies used or developed include scanning comments, captions or bios for anything that might indicate a user’s age, or facial scanning technology that can estimate age.
While many platforms have been reluctant to use age verification technology, the UK government, which introduced its laws, said companies “can use their enormous resources and ingenuity to develop their own solutions”.
Prof Aiken said specific security solutions were needed because “after 50 years of cyber security, things are getting worse. It’s not protecting what it is to be human online”.
“These technical solutions have to be deployed at the platform level, system level or endpoint level, so they have to be deployed within the layers of cyberspace. To make this the parent’s problem is not fair. This is a regulatory, governance and best practice issue. It is not the parents’ responsibility.”
At the same time, other European countries have completely banned phones in schools.
This has also been recommended by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which said there was evidence that excessive mobile phone use was linked to reduced educational performance and had a negative impact on children’s emotional stability.
“Wonderful work happens in schools every day, but we need parents to be proactive in this area”
The government decided this week that a voluntary approach was best.
“We are asking parents to take the lead here. Parents are the primary educators and we will support them in the school system. Wonderful work is happening in schools every day but we need parents to be proactive in this area,” Minister Foley said.
But with moves globally to put the onus on platforms and tech companies – many headquartered in Dublin and worth billions of euros to the Irish exchequer – it remains to be seen whether parents can continue to shoulder the full burden of protecting children online.
As Prof Aiken told an Oireachtas committee when it considered the legislation here: “In the real world parents don’t guard the doors of pubs and ask people if they’re underage and tell those who are they can’t go in. to fall for those who serve in this space”.
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