New research suggests giving your preteen a smartphone makes them more vulnerable to online bullying.
Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor at Bridgewater State University, surveyed 4,584 students between grades 3 and 5 in the U.S.
According to the recently published study, 9.5 per cent of children reported being a victim of cyberbullying. Those with cellphones were more likely to be both victims and perpetrators of online bullying.
“I think the main takeaway is, if you do get your very young child a digital device of their own to carry around, it’s very important to talk to them about how to use it and how not to use it,” Englander said.
“This has to be an ongoing conversation, and I think that that’s the best way that parents can feel safe and secure about giving their children these devices.”
In the study, 11.1 per cent of cellphone owners reported being cyberbullied compared to eight per cent of elementary school students without cellphones. Seven-point-seven per cent of cellphone owners reported cyberbullying their peers, compared to four per cent of those without cellphones.
Dr. Michael Rich, founder of the Boston Children’s Hospital’s Center on Media and Child Health, says the best way parents can navigate smartphone ownership for their preteen is by viewing the device as a tool.
“The trouble that kids get into – either in terms of increasing their own vulnerabilities, in terms of getting involved with sexting or cyberbullying or disrespecting or harming others in the sense of cyberbullying – is because they are behaving like 10 year olds with an adult device,” Rich said.
“Just as you wouldn’t give a bottle of vodka to a 10 year old, or the keys to the car, we should be thinking about whether they really are truly in need of this powerful tool, and whether they can handle in safety, in health and in respect for themselves and their community.”
If a child needs a cellphone in elementary school, Rich recommends setting a clear list of expectations and consequences if those expectations are not met. That includes discussing cyberbullying and appropriate online behaviour.
“You say, ‘Look, first of all, what you send over the air is not yours. That is no longer a private conversation, it’s a public conversation,'” Dr. Rich said. “Not only that, but what you mean when you send something – you may be teasing the person, but what they receive may be very hurtful because what this device does is it distances and takes out the nuance of what you are saying. So your best of friends could be hurt by something you said just in teasing.”
Chris Laing’s 11- and 12-year-old daughters have smartphones, but he has had discussions with them about appropriate behaviour and even uses a parental control app to monitor their activity.
“I took them and showed them the Wayback Machine on the internet so you can see how internet pages have been archived and I wanted them to really understand that anything you say really is always going to be there. It doesn’t just disappear. Words have consequences, so I wanted them to feel comfortable to come to me if someone is saying something inappropriate but also know what is appropriate and what isn’t.”
Englander presented her research this week at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition in Chicago.