In his Fatherhood column, Harry Wallop shares the trials and tribulations of raising three boys (and a girl). Here, he debates the right age for giving them their own phone.
I did not own a mobile phone until the start of this millennium. By then, I had left university and was onto my second job. I just didn’t see the point. Strange but true, if I needed to make a call when I was out and about, I opened my address book (made out of paper) and used a telephone box.
Explain this to a child, and you might as well tell them that you contacted friends via morse code and did your homework on a waxed tablet. I am fully aware denying a pre-teen a mobile phone, in their eyes, is a form of abuse. They cannot conceive of a world without immediate access to Clash of the Clans or the ability to message an emoji to their classmates.
But at what age is it appropriate to give them one? Not that long ago there was horror that school children should have mobile phones. They were causing a huge spike in teenage muggings, crime statistics suggested. But, for me, it was a no-brainer that when my eldest went off to secondary school – which involved him daily commuting across London on the bus – he should have the ability to call one of his parents if he was stuck, if he was running late, if he had forgotten his gym kit.
He was given a £10 pay as you go phone about a year before he went off to secondary school to get him used to the concept. Of course he lost it within a fortnight. And he rarely ever used the replacement, though we tried to foster the idea that if he took it out with him, he could wander further afield and stay out for longer.
If used properly, a simple phone can work like an electronic version of those extendable dog leads. Yes, parenting is like pet training sometimes.
In the summer before he went off to secondary school he finally got the hang of it. A phone is not just a sophisticated tag-your-tot device. It is two way. Or duplex, to use mobile communication jargon. Being able to call your child and ask them to buy a pint of milk on the way back from the football pitch is genuinely useful.
I am not surprised that 32 per cent of 8 to 11 year olds have a mobile phone of some sort, according to Ofcom, the regulator. I really think that giving a 10 year old a phone is not a big deal. If they are old enough to go to the end of the road on their own (and they should be by this age), then sending them off with a phone in their pocket makes everyone’s life a bit easier.
But a smart phone is a whole different thing. For starters, they are more expensive bits of kit. Breaking them, losing them, and flashing them about to potential muggers is going to cause far more grief and heartache than mislaying a £10 handset. And then there is the Pandora’s box that is the internet.
There is no such thing as 100 per cent efficient parental controls. Or even 75 per cent efficient. On YouTube tick the ‘strict’ controls button, and type in ‘How to have’. The first result is ‘sex’, the second is ‘swag’ (eh?) and the third is ‘your first kiss’. I’d hardly call that strict.
Banning the web or YouTube from the phone, however, is hardly realistic. Even my 6 year old has to access the internet to do her homework. By the time your kids are 11, allowing them to play games, message friends, and look up information is just as much a part of their life as chain letters and listening to the Top 40 on the radio was for my generation.
According to Ofcom, more than a quarter of all 8 to 11 year olds have access to a computer or tablet in their own bedrooms, away from prying parental eyes.
I much prefer the children to do their browsing – be it on a fully-fledged computer or on a smartphone screen – near an adult. But to deny them the web completely would be as weird as the family I knew, when I was a child, who banned newspapers from the house.
So upgrading your child’s phone for a smartphone when they hit 12 or 13 – even though it feels as if you are handing them the keys to your car – is just a fact of life. An expensive fact. A regrettable fact, possibly. But one that acknowledges that for their generation the internet is not something that happens on a machine in the corner of the kitchen. It exists everywhere and should probably be embraced.
Harry Wallop is a features writer at the Daily Telegraph and its Dad of Four columnist. He has four children – three boys aged 11, 9 and 2, and a girl aged 6 . His New Year’s resolution is to stop looking at his phone before he gets out of bed in the morning and last thing at night. Removing the charger from the bedside might be a start…. Follow Harry on Twitter @hwallop
Do your children have phones, iPhones or tablets? What age do you think it’s appropriate to give them their own?