Children, tablet and phones. Here’s my advice.

A lot has been said in recent days about children and mobile phone use. A number of recommendations have come out, ranging from banning mobile phone use in schools, limiting screen time and banning phones at the table.

In all honesty, it can be tricky. Parents secretly like the fact that their kids aren’t demolishing the house and they are in fact using a gadget that keeps them occupied, however there’s a lot of risks.

In the “old days” (before kids had tablets and mobile phones) I used to advise parents to put the “family computer” in a downstairs room where activity could be monitored, but now we’re in a world where we can’t physically see what our kids our watching. We also can’t rely on the social media companies to police their networks, because they really don’t have the resources or the want to do it. They almost wash their hands of it, relying on a reactive moderation policy where your kids have to report bad images and bullying. It shouldn’t be that way.

The recent death of Molly Russell, who took her own life at 14, showed how she was easily able to access distressing material about depression and suicide on Instagram. In response, if I’m to put it bluntly, they’re effectively saying, “We’ve made a platform, if you see some pictures showing suicide and it causes you mental anguish, well that’s all very bad but hey – we don’t post the stuff.”

Sure, they’ll say that it’s not allowed and they will remove it if you report it, but you still have to look at the images to realise that they’re bad.

This, then, is where every piece of advice at the top of this story is pointless. Limiting screen time won’t stop your child potentially seeing death, horror and porn on their phones. They could be on a handset for 5 minutes and see that.

If it were me, I’d give out these tips.

1 – Talk to your child before giving them access into any internet-connected device. Explain why you’d like to keep an eye on things and that it’s not because you’re snooping and not because you don’t trust them. It’s instead because you don’t trust others on the internet and you’re effectively leaving the front door open – you’re inviting anyone into your home without asking for ID and without checking what their intentions are.

2 – Monitor app purchases and downloads. Don’t let your child have unrestricted access to install apps. Put a password on and ask them to come to you so that you can put the password in for each app. You can then check what permissions you’re giving away, what data you’re sharing, whether the camera is being used and what controls are in place to protect your little ones.

3 – Be aware that social media companies are not going to take as much care of your kids as you do. Social media companies want users. They want advertising revenue. They will only remove harmful and distressing pictures after your kids have seen them.

4 – No amount of content scanning will stop upsetting images and content getting to your kids. This isn’t a controlled space like BBC1 or ITV. Nobody is proactively checking content.

5 – Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat are filled with influencers who will sell a lifestyle which is not necessarily achievable. Influencers, or brand ambassadors or whatever you want to call them, will be financed by your clicks and by brands. They may not always reveal that, and they will flat-out lie or sell / promote products in order to get more advertising revenue, affiliate clicks or YouTube revenue. Don’t believe everything you see. DON’T.

6 – People feel like they’re protected behind a magical internet blanket. They will say things, do things and ask for things on the internet which they would never do in real life. Your son or daughter could be in their room now and, via WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram, Facetime or whatever, they could be bullied, harassed, abused or exploited. You would never know. So do take time to build that relationship with your child to ensure that they’re open with you and don’t hide things.

Be aware that mobile phones and tablets are highly addictive. Watch this video below, from Channel 4 News, to show how 4-year-olds get addicted to technology quickly.

Above all, talk to your kids, build a relationship. Mention that you want to spend time with them MINUS THE GADGETS. Put your foot down if the devices aren’t turned off and put away when you ask. Don’t cave in if they tell you that “everyone at school has this 18-rated game” or “my mates use it and it’s fine”, because you’ll just be caving into peer pressure too.

I know it’s hard – believe me I’m there with you too – but have a read of this NHS advice and you’ll see why it’s a good idea to balance gadget-time with regular sleep, regular exercise and a proper face-to-face relationship with others.