Every parent has to decide at what age to give a child a phone or if to give them one at all. However in my experience the question isn’t if families should get one – but when and which one. It seems part of the growing process for most children and while having a phone isn’t a necessity it seems more and more like one. Every child seems to want one and few seem to live their lives without one but this doesn’t answer the big questions about the impact of handing over a phone and letting children roam free.

Families who haven’t been through this will wonder when is best – what age is just too young to have a phone when there is always someone in your child’s class who has one already? In youth parlance there is the FOMO (fear of missing out) as “everyone” has got one and the accompanying pester power can be hard to resist. Then there are the more obvious safety and communications reasons – having a phone is a sensible way to keep in touch and stay safe. In short there are plenty of practical, peer, social and commercial pressures. There are also loads of great teaching tools, translators, maps and apps to use in school to help teaching and learning.

So what about the downside? New data from about online bullying is enough to make any parent or teacher stop and think.

Reliable UK think tank Davos claim that almost a third of boys and just less than a quarter of girls admit to cyberbullying and this is most likely to take place via phones. Their Facebook and focus group research in different cities found “shockingly high incidence of hostile behaviour to peers”. Added to this over 90% of those who admit to bullying say they have been bullied online themselves. As a school leader in the UK and abroad I have had to deal with countless horrible experiences of phone bullying – it is a problem that crosses class, age, race and cultural barriers and I fear, it is not going away any time soon.

So what do we do? What about prohibition? One exclusive school in the UK has gone on the attack banning mobiles altogether. The Head’s criticism of “wretched parents” buying phones suggests she is out of sync with the needs and lifestyles of many families. When she said that she wanted to rid the school of WiFi altogether it was only the “huge international student rebellion” that stopped her. Such so called rebels have good reason for wanting to communicate with families when they are a long way from home.

Bans seldom work and tend to subvert rather than solve issues. Even Demos, whose survey revealed the extent of phone bullying in schools, warns against barring young people from social media as they deem it counterproductive. When I posted this story on LinkedIn I received the most replies and most outrange I have ever had for an article. Many voiced concerns about the challenges of understanding the behaviour of modern children and it seems clear we have a way to go in balancing the good side of phones with what can be troublesome and downright dangerous.

We have to be vigilant against one to one bullying online but also the growing problem of trolling – contributing to the strings of negative and hateful messages added to website about anyone who is in the public eye. Evidence suggest that young people are all too willing to take part – some seeing it as cool to be cruel.

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Solutions are hard to find but schools are working hard through good safety policies, training staff to look out for the signs of bullying and providing information for families. The best advice for anyone worried about this growing and important phenomena is to talk openly with their children and look out for changes in their behaviour. From the moment of giving a child a phone we should insist that it can never be completely private and parents should approach their school to raise concerns no matter how small.

10 signs your child may be the victim of cyberbullying

  1. Spending more or less time on the phone or computer
  2. Opting to delete accounts
  3. Asking how to block others
  4. Sudden surges of connections
  5. Mood shifts after using social media
  6. Loss of self-esteem
  7. Change in eating and sleeping habits
  8. Suddenly not wanting to go to school or losing interest in school
  9. Secretive on the phone or computer
  10. Shutting off from family and friends

The article first appeared in Expat Life

Written by Peter Hogan Principal at Regent’s International School, Bangkok