Teach teens to use smartphones safely with this guide. Learn about mobile safety risks and how to avoid them.
Are you considering giving your tween or teen a smartphone? Or have you just got them one? It's understandable to have some questions. What are the risks your child can face online and what can you do to teach them about mobile safety? As is often the case with parenting, there are no hard-and-fast rules for how to encourage safe and healthy mobile phone use – but that doesn’t mean there's nothing you can do. We've put together this guide to help you get a handle on mobile safety, the risks associated with mobile phone use by children, and what you can do about them as a parent.
Kids these days grow up in a time where smartphones have become our constant companions. It's not just them too. Think about how often you use your own smartphone for work, keeping in contact with friends and family or social media. So much of our day to day social lives now happen through our smartphones that most of us can't do without them.
Smartphones are an inevitability. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. But like most things, smartphone use can become bad for us when we overdo it. This is true for teens, too. That is why understanding, teaching and practicing mobile safety is so important. But what else is there to take into account? We've listed some of the biggest risks associated with mobile phone use below. In every part you'll also find ways to help your teen or tween use their phone in a safe and healthy way.
One of the most obvious mobile safety risks is overspending. This can happen with the phone bill itself (unless you choose a prepaid mobile plan for your child and control when you buy mobile top up). Next to that, on a smartphone, overspending can be due to in-app purchases as well. Most worries around overspending on a mobile phone are about in-app or in-game purchases.
To give some context: The worldwide gaming market is estimated to be worth 154 billion dollars and could rise up to 256 billion in 2025. Mobile games make up about half of that value. Since many mobile games are free to play, that's a very impressive statistic. So where is all this money coming from? You guessed it, in-game purchases.
In-game purchases take many forms. Games such as Candy Crush let you buy power-ups that make the next level easier. Fortnite added a whole new layer by creating skins for the player character and their weapons that players can buy. There are too many of these skins available to count, so you can just about look any way you want to. This also means kids can sink an incredible amount of money in buying all the skins they want. No wonder that 67% of parents worry about their teen overspending. Luckily, that's one of the easiest mobile safety risks to tackle.
What can you do?
A good thing to keep in mind is that Fortnite at its core is a very social game. Your child will most likely play it with friends and watch Youtube videos of other groups of friends playing the game and interacting with each other. Fortnite skins have become a method of expressing and experimenting with identities. For that reason alone, outright denying paying for any skins for your teen can work counterproductively.
What you can do is use this moment to teach your teen how to handle money. If you can spare it in your budget, give them a small finite amount with which to buy skins (e.g. a Fortnite V-Buchs gift card). That way they can learn to prioritise the things they want, instead of treating money as an infinite supply of gifts from you.
Is social media making us unhappy? And are the effects of social media even worse for our children? Recent studies have shown that depression and anxiety have been rising among teenagers, at least in the US. Social media use has risen a lot in that same period, so it makes sense that there is a link between the two. It's not yet exactly clear what the link is, but there is enough to go on for young parents trying to understand mobile safety. So what are the possible ways social media can make us unhappy?
Social media and loneliness
One study found that those who spent the most time on social media also feel the most isolated. So are lonely people more likely to spend time on social media, or is social media making us lonely? The answer is not clear, but it could be related to a phenomenon called FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out.
Fear of missing out is the fear of not being connected to our social world. To miss a single party, a single update from a friend. Ironically this can mean we prioritise social media over what's actually going on around us, making us more isolated.
Social media and self esteem
Another theory about the rise of social media depression is the loss of self esteem. When we're comparing ourselves with the perfect lives we see on social media, we feel less good about ourselves. Not only that, but social media takes up time that could have been spent on activities that often raise our self-esteem, like hobbies or sports.
What can you do?
Teach restraint. If there is a link between social media and depression it's clearly about how much time you spend on social media. That means the best thing you can do to teach mobile safety is show your teen how to have a balanced media diet.
This also means that you should practice what you preach. Your phone use sets the tone for what is permissible for your child. Practice restraint in your own phone use. Set limits to where phones can be used and keep yourself to those rules as well.
If you notice your teen is spending hours a day on social media you'll want to check in with them. Find out their why and come up with a plan together to get them to do other things. You can find out more on how to recognize depression in your child here.
We've covered the different ways kids can harm themselves online, but how can they hurt each other? Bullying is a thing of all ages, but by moving online, cyberbullying can quickly become hard to spot for parents. To understand mobile safety, you need to understand cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying can take many forms including: Sending or sharing hurtful or abusive messages, humiliating others by sharing embarrassing videos or images and spreading rumours or lies online. This can happen across many platforms, from social media like Facebook and Instagram to WhatsApp groups.
What can you do?
Keeping open channels of communication with your child about this is incredibly important. Make sure they know it's always good and safe to share with you when something online is making them uncomfortable and unsafe.
If your child is getting cyberbullied the same methods work as with regular bullying. Make sure they know it's not their fault. That help is available and it's not weak to ask for it. Make sure they know they're not alone and that they'll get through it. Internet Matters, a UK non profit helping parents keep their children safe online, has more resources about keeping your child safe online.
When it comes to mobile safety, one of the things parents worry about is screen time. How much time is your child looking at a screen per day? Is more screen time per definition a bad thing? The science on this front is vague. There are statistical correlations between screen time and a lot of bad things, like depression, obesity and sleeping problems. It's hard to find a causal link however. So it's not so easy to say screen time causes all these things.
So how do you interpret the research and how do you teach your child mobile safety? Luckily, there are a couple of things we can say about screen time and a couple of things we can do to minimise the risks.
Late-Night phone use
One of the clearest effects of screen time is not so much about how much your child is getting but when. Research has found a link between late night texting and calling and poor-quality sleep. The lack of sleep in turn caused a decline in mental health and the ability to cope with negative events. Using your phone late at night is a clear mobile safety risk. Setting boundaries of when and where your tween or teen can use their smartphone helps.
Besides late night use, can screen time itself be a problem? In short, can you get addicted to your phone? The answer to that is: maybe. Screen time in itself is not harmful, but it can be a part of harmful behaviour and if we're honest, it often is.
The question you should ask yourself is, is the screen time hurting some other important part of my child's life? Are their grades hurting? Do they no longer hang out with friends? Do they seem sad, or edgy and nervous? In that case the screen time might be hurting their wellbeing? Try to find out what's going on, to find their why.
So what are the basic things you can do to teach your tween or teen mobile safety? They can be summed up in the following 4 basic guidelines:
Practice healthy and balanced electronic use: They might not act like it, but you are a role model for your kid. If you're scrolling through your Insta feed, or binging Netflix all the time they'll grow up thinking it's normal. So practice what you preach! Follow mobile safety guidelines yourself, and your child will, too.
Use parental controls: There are tools you can use to filter or block unwanted content. You can even set daily screen time limits that can lock your children out of apps after they have reached a set amount of time.
Encourage other activities: There's more to the world than what you can see through your phones. Hobbies and sports can give your child self-esteem and build their sense of identity. Teach mobile safety by showing your tween or teen what else is out there other than apps and social media. Set the example by reading books or planning a no-phones-allowed camping trip.
Keep bedrooms screen-free: Given the negative effect of late night screen time, keeping the bedrooms screen-free is a great approach to mobile safety.