Check your child’s phone, say experts

There’s growing support worldwide for children not to be given smartphones until they’re 16.

There’s growing support worldwide for children not to be given smartphones until they’re 16.

Published May 27, 2024


Durban — Local child experts have given the thumbs up to an international groundswell of support calling for children to have limited access to smartphones or to delay the age when they have phones of their own.

From the Parents United for a Smartphone Free Childhood campaign in the UK to the latest research by the World Health Organization (WHO), statistics show that apart from cellphone addiction, poor communication skills and cyberbullying, many children have inappropriate contact with adults or other individuals they don’t know through their smartphones.

“In my opinion young children don’t need phones at all,” said Childline’s KZN director, Adeshini Naicker.

She said many of the complaints they received related to cyberbullying.

“Unfortunately in the world we live in, it’s difficult to deny our children access to technology whether in the form of a phone, tablet, TV or laptop. However, the onus is on parents to ensure their children use it responsibly and safely.”

Naicker said to protect their children and to ensure they were safe and smart online, it was crucial for parents to establish open communication, set clear boundaries and educate them about online risks.

“Encourage them to ask questions, seek guidance when unsure and prioritise digital literacy skills. Make sure to implement parental controls and monitor their online activities while fostering a trusting relationship,” she said.

The Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study released by the WHO in March said cyberbullying introduced unique challenges for adolescents, extending beyond the school gates into the “perceived safety” of their homes and personal lives.

It said the latest data from 2018 to 2022 showed a concerning increase in cyberbullying. The number of boys who cyberbullied rose from 11% to 14% and girls from 7% to 9%. It also noted that reports of being cyberbullied had escalated from 12% to 15% for boys and from 13% to 16% for girls.

Dr Joanna Inchley, who led the study focussing on bullying and peer violence among adolescents across 44 countries and regions, emphasised that comprehensive strategies were needed to protect the mental and emotional well-being of young people.

“The digital world, while offering incredible opportunities for learning and connecting, also amplifies challenges like cyberbullying. It’s crucial for governments, schools, and families to collaborate on addressing online risks, ensuring adolescents have safe and supportive environments in which to thrive,” said Inchley.

That report also showed that while the overall trends in school bullying had remained stable since 2018, cyberbullying increased and was magnified by the increasing digitalisation of young people’s interactions, with potentially profound impacts on young lives.

Wellness and trauma therapist Jaishiela Kooverjee said parents had every right to check children’s devices, and should be doing so, even at high school age.

“It’s not because we want to pry into their lives and be controlling, it’s about safety. They also know that, hey, mom or dad is going to check and I need to be accountable and responsible. I’m not saying do it every day: it depends on the child and on your relationship and how you do that.

“Parents need to ensure that technology is not replacing their parenting responsibilities and that it’s not replacing human contact. The first seven years of a child’s life are a blueprint for the rest of their life and it involves the brain, neurons, what is acceptable and what is not. So from zero to 5, they can use technology for nursery rhymes and to see the dances or actions that go with the nursery rhymes, but that is it.

“I’ve seen children that have accents from places they’ve never been to and that’s because the devices become their teachers,” said Kooverjee.

In the first five years, children learnt by using their senses, while primary school children must play because it is key to their development, she said.

“Parents need to play with their children, because that’s a perfect way of forging a bond and creating that relationship so when children reach their teenage years, the parents are able to set boundaries and communicate with their children.”

Kooverjee said that sometimes, because parents were busy, the device became the babysitter or the teacher and there was no discipline or boundaries. She said parents tried to overcompensate for not being present.

“There is access to all these chats and platforms that they’re using to connect with people. And because there’s no parent relationship, they’re getting information from their peer group.”

Kooverjee urged parents to educate their children on potential hazards of being connected online so they understand their rights and responsibilities from the onset.

Child Protection Hotline managing director Danie van Loggerenberg suggested children be given old-fashioned phones, only able to make calls or text but with no internet connection, to allow children to alert parents about their location or if there had been a change to their school schedule.

“If it was up to me, they should not be allowed to have a cellphone until the age of 16. Our kids are not concentrating in class, we’ve got a real three-second brain thing going because they watch a new video or a new short or a new thread or a new TikTok every three seconds,” he said.

Van Loggerenberg, who visits schools around the country to educate children about issues including safety, said because of technology, parents and children no longer communicated in person.

“We find a lot of kids and their parents send each other voice notes and WhatsApps in the same house so people don’t speak anymore. And because there’s no communication, children become vulnerable to outsiders.”

He said it came down to trust.

“Tell your children, I’m going to check on you often, not because I don’t trust you, but because I want to make sure you are safe.

“If you can establish that kind of relationship, you’re going to be okay. But parents need to realise that you have to build that trust, it doesn’t come automatically,” Van Loggerenberg said.

Independent on Saturday