Catherine Hiley, telecoms expert at Uswitch.com shares some advice on how to keep children safe as they gain more digital independence, as well as some suggestions for the best teen and tween-friendly handsets.
Millions of children will be gearing up to start a new school year in the next few days, with many making the move to secondary school.
Lots of kids start to gain more independence at this age, by walking home alone or attending more after-school activities. So this is often a time that parents consider getting their child their first smartphone.
It can be a daunting time for parents, and even more so when considering the price of tech items that children carry in their school bags.
- Hand-me-down handsets – The cheapest phone is one you already own. Whether you have an old spare handset gathering dust in a drawer, or if you’re coming to the end of your contract, consider handing down your previous handset to your child. You can then focus on finding the right SIM-only deal and a jazzy new case to give it a child-friendly facelift. Buying a second-hand or refurbished phone is another great option.
- Smart decisions – Consider whether your child’s first phone needs to be a smartphone, or if they simply need a way to keep in contact with calls and texts. ‘Dumbphones’ have many benefits for kids, including longer battery life, durability that will survive being thrown around in a school bag – and much cheaper upfront costs.
- Competition at school – Like new trainers, a brand-new handset can cause competition among classmates. This can lead to you being asked to spend more on a phone than you want. But if your child is clamouring for a new iPhone, there are ways of cutting the cost. Shop around and find the best deal available for your budget and a device that has the features your child is looking for. If you do opt for a new handset, remember that accidents happen, so it’s worth getting comprehensive insurance to cover it for accidental damage, loss or theft.
Setting up parental controls
- Content restriction apps – There are plenty of apps to help you keep track of the websites your child is visiting. Though many of these cost money, Google Family Link is a free app that shows parents how much time their kids spend on each digital activity and allows them to control which apps are downloaded. Check what parental controls are offered within the phone’s operating system. You can also speak to your mobile network provider or go through their website to restrict access to adult material.
- Two-factor authentication – While this is mostly used to authorise payments and prevent fraud, it can also be used to keep tabs on anything your child is attempting to buy or download. Simply use your mobile number as the contact method and you will receive a notification when your child tries to do something that requires approval.
- Low data plans – Another way to keep tabs on your child’s smartphone usage is by opting for a very low data SIM-only plan. This means that, to go online, they will be forced to connect to Wi-Fi, either at home, where you will have parental controls, or at school, where there should be firewalls in place to stop them from accessing restricted sites.
Bullying and harassment
- Have open conversations – Encourage dialogue with your child and make sure they aren’t receiving harmful content. This could be as simple as asking them to lock the phone or turn off Bluetooth so files can’t be shared with them. Tell them to speak to a teacher if they see something that isn’t appropriate at school.
- Block and report – Mobile manufacturers and sites like Facebook and TikTok both offer services which allow you to block individuals, as well as report bullying and abuse.
- Limit phone use – Bullying can feel relentless for children if they face it both at school and through tech. If all else fails, you might consider reducing the amount of time they spend on messaging and social media apps.
Avoiding hefty bills
- Don’t save your bank details – Children can often rack up large bills just because they have access to your payment details saved on their phone. If you do have to pay for something on their device, make sure it doesn’t store your details.
- Set a price cap – Many mobile phone bundles have data limits that, when exceeded, can become costly. Speak to the network provider about how you can set a price cap in case your child tries to use more than their monthly allowance. It is also possible to buy special zero-data contracts that will only allow users to access data over a Wi-Fi connection. As many providers have reintroduced roaming fees when travelling in the EU, you may consider limiting your child’s use when you’re on a family holiday.
- Monitor mobile game usage – Mobile games can be a fun way for children to pass the time. But with many offering in-app purchases, it can become an expensive activity. On app marketplaces like Google Play, you can use filters to find free games without any paid upgrades.
Concludes Catherine Hiley, telecoms expert at Uswitch.com:
“Keeping your child safe on their smartphone can feel like a tricky task when they’re not at home. But network operators and phone manufacturers are making it easier to control exactly what your child can access.
“Setting up parental controls, mobile usage caps and two-factor authentication can help to ensure that your child is avoiding harmful material and doesn’t run the risk of landing you with a surprise bill at the end of the month.
“Keeping an open dialogue with your child about what content and social media they use is just as important, making sure you can address any sensitive issues, such as online bullying, as quickly as possible.
“The latest handsets can set you back hundreds of pounds, and the school playground is notorious for phone mishaps. Choosing a second-hand or refurbished handset with a low-data SIM-only deal can help to limit upfront costs.”