Belfast Telegraph

Noel Purdy: Why banning smartphones isn't the best way to keep your children safe online

Not allowing young people onto social media platforms could leave them less able to protect themselves in later life, academic Noel Purdy argues

Some parents ban smartphones to keep their children safe online
Some parents ban smartphones to keep their children safe online

By Noel Purdy

Michael Kelly's thought-provoking Saturday Opinion piece (Saturday, November 16) raised many important questions about how parents should keep their children safe online.

The striking photo of murdered schoolgirl Ana Kriegel (below) also served as a reminder that amid all the statistics, legislation and policy which are often cited in such discussions, there are real children and young people at the heart of the issue.

What struck me most, as a researcher, teacher educator and parent was the response described by Michael Kelly, where one family had said no to a smartphone for their 13-year-old and instead had given him a basic phone capable only of making and receiving calls with the option of accessing the internet through a family computer in easy view of his parents.

It is claimed that the boy in question is not isolated from his friends and, indeed, lives a perfectly happy life. The question raised by this response is whether we should all be doing the same.

The suggestion is that, as parents, we all need to "wise up", have some "common sense" and so avoid a "lifetime of hand-wringing".

For the past two years, I have been leading the Blurred Lives project - a cross-national, co-participatory exploration of cyberbullying, young people and socio-economic disadvantage which has been funded by Erasmus+.

The Blurred Lives project focused on the online experiences of 14-16-year-olds in schools in disadvantaged urban areas in Northern Ireland, England, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands and aimed to facilitate pupil voice through the creation of resources for teachers, pupils, parents and social networking providers.

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Blurred Lives was the first such project in Europe to use a co-participatory approach and to initiate the pupil-led development of resources based on what these pupils experience, how they define cyberbullying and what they think interventions should look like.

In the first phase of the project, an online survey was completed by around 500 pupils in five-plus schools in each country and explored pupils' online access and negative experiences.

This has given us a database of over 2,500 young people's experiences and represents one of the largest such datasets in recent years across Europe.

The second phase aimed to provide up-to-date resources for teachers, pupils and parents/carers and make important recommendations to social networking providers, building on ideas from the pupils themselves.

This was done through a combination of group interviews (sequential focus groups) and practical workshops (quality circles), carried out intensively with two classes of 14-16-year-old pupils in each country (237 pupils in total).

(The full range of original resources are now available on the Blurred Lives project website and are free to download at )

Not surprisingly, perhaps, we found in our survey of young people's online experiences that even in inner-city schools (in Northern Ireland, we used seven post-primary schools, all with 40%-plus free school meal entitlement) almost all the young people owned their own smartphone (97%).

They also spent considerable time online each day: over half of the young people spent more than five hours online every day, with Snapchat, Facebook and Youtube the most popular sites.

We asked the young people if anything nasty, or unpleasant, had happened to them online in the previous couple of months. Over one in five said yes.

When asked to describe the worst thing that had happened, the range of answers was very broad and while many descriptions referred to routine arguments and minor instances of name-calling among friends ("people slabbering"), they also included more serious incidents of online bullying (the main theme of our project) and many other forms of negative online experiences: for instance, sexting ("someone sent me nudes"), being told to cut their wrists, or kill themselves, grooming, blackmail and, for several girls, low self-esteem when faced with images of female models online ("seeing models on social media makes me feel ugly and fat"). In fact, the range is such that we have developed a new model of categorisation for negative online experiences, which includes details of what happened, on which site/app it happened, what the motivation was and who was responsible.

Interestingly, when we looked more closely at the amount of time spent online by those young people who had reported negative online experiences, we found that in fact young people who spent a low to moderate amount of time online each day (one-two hours) were least likely to have negative experiences.

Young people who spent even less time (less than half-an-hour) or those who spent three hours or more online each day were proportionately much more likely to have negative online experiences.

This would suggest a high degree of vulnerability for young people, who are perhaps less familiar with the online world, but, of course, also serves as a warning to those who spend very high amounts of time online.

So, how should parents respond? This is clearly a matter of parental choice, but our data would suggest that total abstinence from smartphones and the online world may not, in fact, be helpful in the long run, assuming that sooner or later the young people in question will enter this world, potentially less skilled in protecting themselves.

There is also the risk, although Michael Kelly claims this has not happened in the one instance he cites, that young people not engaging in social media at all could become marginalised and left out of everyday teenage communication, which, like it or not, most commonly takes place through Instagram, or Snapchat.

One parent told me once at a school parents' evening that although she didn't want to buy her daughter a smartphone for fear of online bullying, her daughter was beginning to be bullied by her peers precisely because she didn't have a smartphone.

We also asked our young people to tell us how parents/carers could help more. The most common responses from almost half of the young people concerned better parent/child relationships characterized by better listening ("my parents could listen to me more"), better communication ("just talk to me once in a while to see how I'm doing and if anything's wrong") and more engagement ("be more involved"; "ask if you're all right").

Almost a quarter of the young people who responded to this question did, however, also recognise the importance of monitoring their online activity ("check their social medias"; "check on kids' history").

Finally, 30 years after the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Michael Kelly is right to refer to the rights of young people to be protected from online harm.

But let us not forget their corresponding rights to participate in digital environments where they have unrivalled opportunities to express their views, to communicate, to access entertainment and to learn.

Common sense tells me that, if we fail to teach our children how to use the internet effectively, how to stay safe online and how to think critically, we fail to prepare them for their future.

Dr Noel Purdy is director of research and scholarship at Stranmillis University College, Belfast

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