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Phones

This guide aims to help parents and carers support their child in using a phone safely and responsibly. It will also give some top tips for buying, or letting your child use, a phone.

What is it?

A phone (sometimes referred to as a smartphone) is a mobile device that can connect to both the internet and phone networks. To do this, it needs to connect to Wi-Fi or an internet data network (e.g. 4G). Phones can connect to Wi-Fi without a SIM card, but to be able to connect to the phone and mobile data network, it must have a SIM card that is either Pay As You go or on a paid contract.

What can you use them for?

Phones can send and receive calls and messages, browse the internet and take photos and videos. There are also a huge amount of apps that can be downloaded that let the user do a variety of different tasks such as watch videos, connect with friend on social media, make video calls, play games, get news updates, and much more.

Phones are very useful and entertaining, giving young people a way to keep in touch with their friends and families. However, it is important to be aware of what phones can do and to help your child use this technology in a safe and positive way.

If you only do 3 things:

  1. Talk with your child about responsible use of their phone – what is okay and not okay to use it for? What are the risks?
  2. Tell your child what they should do if something upsetting or unusual happens  while using it. Phones are designed to be easily taken around with us so you may not be there when something happens. Remind them to stop and tell an adult they trust as soon as they can.  
  3. Explore appropriate parental controls, either on the phone, your home Wi-Fi or both. Open conversation with your child is the most important thing, but parental controls can be a good back up.

 

Conversations starters for talking with your child about phones:

  • Why do you want to get a phone? / What do you like about your phone?
  • What do young people your age use their phone for?
  • What is your favourite app / game?
  • What can we do as a family to help you use it safely?
  • What would you do if something worrying or upsetting happened on your phone?
  • (If there is a problem) Can you explain to me how it happened so we can fix it together?

FAQs

At what age should I let my child have their own phone?

There is no official or recommended age for a child to have their own phone.

It’s reported that over half of ten year olds now own their own smartphone, and that between the ages of nine and ten, smartphone ownership doubles - marking an important milestone in children’s digital independence as they prepare for secondary school. (Ofcom 2019).

5% of 3-7 year olds, 37% of 8-11s and 83% of 12-15s have their own smartphone (Ofcom 2019).

As with any piece of technology, use your judgement to decide if you are happy for your child to use a phone. If so, it’s important to explain that you want to keep them safe and for them to enjoy using the phone. Whether they already have a phone or you are giving them one, explore the parental controls on offer, set up boundaries with your child, and reassure them that they can talk to you if anything does go wrong while using it.

What should I ask in the shop before I buy a smartphone?

If you are thinking about buying a smartphone for your child, why not print out our Shopper’s Checklist and ask these important questions in the shop?

You can also check out our top tips for iPhone and BlackBerry.

Save or print these questions

Buying a mobile phone? Questions to ask in the shop

Internet access

  • Does this phone have internet access? What does this allow the phone to do?
  • Is it possible to filter internet content that is potentially harmful for children?
  • Is it possible to disable the internet browser to prevent my child from surfing the web?
  • If my child accesses wifi from home, how can I ensure that filtering is still in place?
  • How can this smartphone be used to watch films and TV or listen to music? Can I restrict access to content based on age ratings?

Communication

  • What are the ways this device can be used to communicate with people?
  • Are there any settings to prevent video calling?
  • Are there any settings to prevent multiplayer gaming?
  • How can I report unwanted or abusive calls or messages?

Apps

  • Can I prevent my child from downloading apps which are not age appropriate?
  • How can I report an app?
  • Are there any apps which might help protect my child?

Protecting personal information

  • How can you set a PIN to lock the phone when it is not being used?
  • Does this phone have any location services? Are there any settings to prevent my child sharing their location?

Costs

  • How could my child run up a bill using their smartphone? Are there parental controls or ways of restricting spending?
  • How could my child spend money on apps or in-app content? Are there parental controls or ways of restricting spending?

How can I introduce a phone in a safe way?

When initially setting up the phone, you could spend some time using the device with your child. If your child is very young, spend some time downloading appropriate apps for / with them. If your child is a bit older, have a conversation with them about the type of apps that they might like to download. Have a very open conversation about your expectations when they are using the phone.

What are the risks to having a phone?

Like any piece of technology, phones have both benefits and risks. There are some key concerns people have about children using phones in particular:

  • Cyberbullying and harassment from both friends and strangers
  • Unwanted contact from others and strangers
  • Over-sharing personal information, such as your name, location, or images
  • Accessing inappropriate content
  • Spending too much money
  • Excessive screen time

Many of the risks associated with phones depend on how it is being used and the apps that are installed. For example, a risk of unwanted contact from strangers is increased if a child is using certain games (usually the ones that allow chat and messaging) or social media. A key part of understanding and minimising the risks is to know what apps have been installed. Parental controls can help you further monitor potential risks, such as blocking new app downloads so that you can check if the app is suitable beforehand. For further information on how to set controls on a tablet, you can read step-by-step guides on the Internet Matters website.

What about inheriting or buying a second hand phone?

If you are going to give your child a phone that was previously owned by someone else, you should ensure that it has been restored to its factory settings. This means deleting all data on the phone and returning it to the state in which it would have been if purchased brand new. This will avoid you or your child potentially accessing someone else’s personal information, private messages, photos, accounts, etc. It will also allow you to set up parental controls that are most suitable for your child.

For some tips on getting your child their first smartphone, see the Internet Matters website.

 

What can I do to limit potential risks? - Cyberbullying / Online harassment

There is no single solution to the problem of cyberbullying, but there are steps that you can take to help prevent it.

Talk with your child about their understanding of what cyberbullying is, and how it is different to bullying face to face. Young people can sometimes confuse bullying with ‘banter,’ especially online when physical clues such as tone of voice and facial expression can be missing. Ask your child how they would react if they were targeted with unkind behaviour online, or if their friend was. Reinforce the message they should not reply, save any evidence, and that you are always there for them to talk to about any online problems.

You probably ask them how they are or how they are feeling a lot. Ask them ‘How are things online?’ because their answer and experiences could be very different.

What can I do to limit potential risks? - Unwanted contact from others / strangers

When playing on games and using social media children may be sent messages or be able to chat with strangers. Remind your child that even if someone online seems really friendly, it’s difficult to know how truthful they are being.

Speak to your child about their profile settings. The safest option is to use the ‘private’ setting, meaning that only friends they have accepted can see what they share. Check they know how to use safety tools such as blocking and privacy settings by exploring these together.

Encourage your child to tell you if anything makes them uncomfortable or upset while using their phone. Make sure they know to speak to a trusted adult immediately if anyone they only know online (a stranger) asks to meet up, for their personal information, or for photos or videos of them.

Unwanted contact that is hurtful or upsetting can also be reported using social media’s different reporting functions. More information on these reporting methods can be found on the Childnet website.

What can I do to limit potential risks? - Personal information and images

A lot of personal information can be stored on phones, such as photos, videos and email and account logins. Help your child to set up a PIN, passcode or thumbprint recognition to secure their device.

Speak to your child about the importance of not sharing any personal information when communicating publicly online, such as their phone number, school, address or current location. Location is another key part of personal information. Location services can usually be turned off for individual apps, but they can often be turned off in a phone’s settings as well. You can find out more about location services here.

Most phones have cameras so it is important to talk with your child about using them sensibly. Encourage your child to ask the permission of friends before sharing their photos online. Remind them that taking photos or videos which upset others is a form of bullying.

Remind your child that if they send images to people, there is a possibility they could share it with others. Feeling pressured to send intimate photos to someone is not a sign of a healthy relationship, and any child in that situation needs to feel they have an adult in their life they could go to for help. Make sure your child knows they can come to you with any problem or pressure they feel online. It is also possible that younger children may take or send these types of images as a joke or because they do not know any better. To avoid this, you may find it helpful to talk about the parts of the body which should be kept private. For more advice on sexting (sending sexual images) including conversation starters for children of different ages see advice here.

What can I do to limit potential risks? - Inappropriate content

If your child will be connecting their phone to your home Wi-Fi network, or already does, then any parental controls or filters you put on your home network will apply when they browse the internet on their phone too. Find out more about putting parental controls on your home internet connection here.

Most phones also have built-in parental controls that can be switched on that will activate filters against some inappropriate content. Visit Internet Matters’ Smartphone Guides to see what you can apply on the type of phone your child has or that you are thinking of getting for them. Also, mobile providers (such as EE, Virgin Media, etc.) offer their own filters to limit the inappropriate content a child might see. Internet Matters also has step-by-step guides on how set controls on the major mobile network providers.

Ask your child what they like to look at and where they go for information online. Give them some trusted websites they could use. For younger children, you could install a child-friendly search engine as an app or a favourite in their phone’s browser.

What can I do to limit potential risks? - Spending money

Ensure that you and your child understand their phone’s internet data allowance. Using the internet uses data and if your child goes over the allowance, it may cost the bill payer. When phones connect to the internet through Wi-Fi, data allowances are not used up. It is a good idea for your child to connect to this when they are at home, particularly as it will mean any parental controls on your home Wi-Fi will also protect the phone.

Your child may also spend money by buying apps and making in-app purchases. While many apps are free, some can cost money. In-app purchases are not always obvious; they may have downloaded a free game app, but to upgrade to the next level they are asked to make an “in-app purchase”.

Discuss the cost of apps and in-app purchases and decide spending limits together. For younger children, you could have a family agreement about only downloading apps together. On many phones it is possible to block in-app purchases and downloading apps. Visit Internet Matters’ Smartphone Guides to find out how to set this up.

See phonebrain.org.uk for advice for young people on what is likely to cost them or you money.

What can I do to limit potential risks? - Screen time

With the internet at their fingertips, it is easy to see how young people can end up spending a lot of time on their phone. The draw of non-stop entertainment, and the pressure to reply to messages instantly, can be difficult to switch off from.

However, it is important to remember that there is no concrete evidence linking screen time to real harm. Phones can also be a valuable part of a child’s development: they can be a great way to develop skills and can help young people channel their creativity and imagination. There are also a wide variety of educational apps that can be downloaded to help with their learning. It is important to balance the kind of activities that they are taking part in on their phone. For example, over several hours, a child might do some research for homework, video call their grandparents, watch a video and play some games. Children should also balance time on a phone with time away from it.

A family agreement can be a positive way to help your child manage their phone use. You could agree rules on when your child can use their phone and for how long. You may want to suggest that any homework or other important tasks are completed before they can use their phone in the evening. It might also be a good idea to set a time in the evening for the phone to be switched off so that they are not using it late at night and losing sleep because of it.  In some families, all phones are left downstairs to charge overnight.   

What can I do if something goes wrong?

Reassure your child you are there to listen and help. Ask about the problem and try to find out how it happened.

If you suspect that your child is or has been the subject of inappropriate sexual contact by another person you should report this to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre at www.ceop.police.uk.

If your child has been involved in cyberbullying, talk through how they are feeling. Report or block any unacceptable behaviour or other users. Contact your child’s school for further support, particularly if it involves another pupil at your child’s school. If the cyberbullying is a potential criminal offence, consider contacting the police.

With any problem that happens on a phone, reassure your child they have done the right thing by telling you. Learn together from the experience, and talk about how it could be avoided in the future. Explore the settings to see if you can do something to limit the risk of it happening again.

For help for on specific problems, see the following advice on screen time, cyberbullying, grooming, sexting, apps, in-app purchases, and digital wellbeing.