There has been lots of coverage recently about the proposed legislation by Fine Gael TD Jim Daly, that would see parents fined for not effectively controlling their children’s use of smartphones and could potentially see retailers fined for selling smartphones to children under the age of 14. It is yet to be seen whether this legislation, The Internet Access for Minors Bill 2017, will make it onto the statute books. The proposal of this legislation has  certainly started a conversation on the use of the internet by children, the impact of that use on their development and the role that legislation would have on internet use by children. The core reason that Zeeko was founded in 2013 was to empower parents and teachers to help children stay safe online. The main way that we do this is to through education; this in turn leads to empowerment. The use of smartphones by children, particularly those under the age of 14, most certainly has an impact on them, even in terms of screentime alone, to say nothing of the content that they are accessing or exposed to. So, what can you do to ensure that your child stays safe when they are using a smartphone, until legislation becomes a reality?

Starting a conversation about internet safety at the earliest possible age gives your child a solid foundation when they start using a smartphone. In an interview with Irish Tech News last week Zeeko CEO and Founder Joe Kenny said:  “The Internet is an integral part of young people’s academic, professional and personal lives with many benefits such as enhanced self-esteem, expression of identity, enhancement of interpersonal relationships and social interactions among others.”

He added, “We know from our last survey of over 4,400 primary school children that 86% of them use a mobile device (smart phone, tablet or iPod). We need to empower young people through education to develop self-coping and self-protection strategies. Similar to road safety, we do not let our children just cross the road we teach our children to cross the road. Parents need to strike the balance between restricting internet access as a safety measure and encouraging internet access as a learning strategy.”

He concluded, “While there may be scope for legislation in this area, especially if it creates more awareness of the issues among parents, the key is to take away the risk but not the learning. Ultimately, children need critical thinking skills to be prepared for risks online that do not yet exist, technologies that have not yet been invented and problems that are not yet recognised.”

In practical terms, before they use a smartphone remind your child about the Stop, Block Tell Rule, and also about the T-Shirt Rule too. The T-Shirt rule is particularly effective in explaining the importance of being careful what children post online. Children particularly, if they have a new found freedom online, may easily forget that what they post online cannot be easily removed or permanently deleted.  It’s really easy to get distracted by all the functions available on a smartphone even as an adult, so imagine how that could be distracting that could be for a child. Something that we have always promoted is that confiscation or removal of digital devices as a punishment, just does not work. In fact it can lead to an ‘underground’ use of technology by children. In other words, if devices are confiscated in your home, it can happen that when your child is at a friend’s house for example, they will be more likely to go online when they are not under your supervision. Also with the prevalence of wifi in a myriad of locations older children in particular can access the internet from a range of locations.

Safety settings are now an integral part of smartphones, be they android or iPhone. Make sure that you have activated these settings on all of the digital devices your children have access to. While safety settings are not a 100% guarantee of safety while online, they are certainly a good first step in helping to keep your child safe online.

We are all surrounded by technology at every turn, finding ways to protect our children, be that via legislation or by others means is a constant challenge for parents, teachers and legislators.