Leona O'Neill: Kids need confidence building on the internet, not blanket bans

Psychologists have convincingly made the case for restricting young children's internet access yet surely children need to be familiar with the web and forewarned about its dangers in order to navigate it safely, writes Leona O'Neill

Why not give them the armour to survive in what can often be a hostile online world, teach them how to protect themselves?

LAST week the news was awash with statements from a top psychiatrist, warning parents not to give their primary-school-age children mobile phones.

Dr Jon Goldin, vice-chairman of the Royal College of Psychologists, warned that children who use smartphones from a young age are at greater risk of suffering from depression and anxiety.

It is believed that four out of every 10 children in the UK are in possession of a smartphone. Dr Goldin said some parents felt pressurised into purchasing said smartphones for their children so that they are not ‘left out' at school. He is pushing for government guidance to help parents quote the law when being pestered by their kids for a phone.

He also wants government recommendations that children under the age of 11 should not be allowed more than two hours of social media a day, stating that social media can bring negative emotions to the fore in children, leading them to feel anxious, not to mention the dangers of cyberbullying.

He called on social media chiefs to make it more difficult for children to lie about their age so they can set up accounts on the likes of Facebook or Twitter before they are 13 years old.

Dr Goldin's comments come ahead of the publication of a report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which assesses the damage caused by children spending too much time online.

On Friday I was on the radio with a mother of 10 children who says no child should own a smartphone until they had a job with which to pay for the contract. She stated that teenage children would be using the phone to look at porn, or accidentally stumble across porn. She used the example of her friend getting the shock of her life while researching a certain type of river-dwelling beaver on Google to warn us all of the real and present dangers of the world wide web.

I personally think our kids are more savvy than a lot of people give them credit for. I wholeheartedly agree with the guidance that children under 11 years old have no business owning a smartphone or indeed having social media accounts.

I can understand why children of post-primary age need a mobile phone for practical reasons. Both my teenage sons have phones on which they can access the internet. My two younger children are online too, on tablets, which have parental controls in place so that they can't stumble across anything that is inappropriate for their age in the minefield that is the internet.

Personally I don't need government guidance on how to parent my child. I know them, I know how sensible or indeed otherwise each of them is and if they are ready for the chaos that is the internet.

Before my teenager's phone contracts were signed and the phones were handed over we had a good chat about what this new freedom involved, the dangers of social media, of putting your life online for all to see.

My kids have grown up seeing me being highly visible on social media and taking bucket loads of abuse because of it. My kids have heard me talk about stories I've covered about teenagers who have taken their own lives because of internet bullying, or because they have compared themselves to impossible-to-emulate filtered photos on social media.

My kids have watched the rise and fall of several YouTubers online and learned from their mistakes. My kids know that if they put any aspect of their lives, or teenage opinion, out there on the web, it's there to stay forever. They are well warned and well prepared and I trust them to conduct themselves well.

Kids are online these days from an early age. You often see babies with phones or iPads watching internet cartoons while being pushed around in their prams. Teenagers practically live their lives online. It's the way of the modern world.

Instead of banning kids from the internet and phones, why not give them the armour to survive in what can often be a hostile online world, teach them how to protect themselves, build their confidence and boost their independence so that they can handle what life – online and in the real world – throws at them.

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