Talking point: Giving my daughter access to a mobile phone has been fraught with challenges
Against my better judgement, during lockdown I relented and gave my eldest daughter access to her own phone.
In fairness, I relented on a lot of things during lockdown – anything to make everyone’s lives easier – but even though I told myself the phone would be a temporary privilege, I knew deep down that once I had given this freedom, it would be almost impossible to take it away.
Again, in fairness to me, I was trying to work, look after a pre-schooler and homeschool my eldest, and the constant FaceTime calls and messages to my phone – which I needed for work – from her friends was becoming unbearable.
After one final voice message asking my daughter what she had for her lunch that day, I caved.
I wanted her to be able to keep in touch with her friends, after all, especially in deepest darkest lockdown when even meeting up with others outside was forbidden.
So I dug out my old iPhone, complete with smashed screen, stuck in a SIM card and bestowed this coming-of-age device upon my nine-year-old.
I parental-controlled it to the max, banning access to anything with adult content, set a screen time limit, cut off her ability to use it after 7pm, but despite all that, I had still opened a door to a world that terrified me.
And it’s no wonder. Police Scotland recently revealed that reports of online sexual abuse and exploitation increased by 13.4 per cent from April to December 2020 compared with the same period in 2019 as youngsters were forced to substitute school for online learning and real-life friendships for those conducted in gaming chat rooms and via social media.
This worrying rise led to the launch of a campaign last month to help children and young people recognise the signs of online harms, including child sexual abuse and exploitation.
As Assistant Chief Constable Judi Heaton, lead for public protection and major crime at Police Scotland, put it: “Children and young people should be able to access the virtual world, platforms and apps, chat with their friends and explore without the threat of abuse and exploitation.”
They should. Of course they should. But the fact is, they can’t.
And while I try to protect her as much as possible, banning her from taking her phone outside to ensure I can limit what she sees, monitor her online activity and keep an eye on who she is chatting to, I know this isn’t a long-term solution.
Already I lose this ability whenever she is with her friends who don’t have the same restrictions imposed upon them and who are allowed to use their devices more freely. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve witnessed them doing TikTok videos in the park, even though TikTok is banned in our house.
So although I will continue to use all the parental controls available and play the ‘bad cop’ despite what her friends may be allowed to do, I will also ensure I explain to my daughter why I am “spoiling her fun”.
As Child Protection Committees Scotland chair Alan Small quite rightly pointed out: “Parents and carers play a vital role in protecting their children from the predatory behaviour of online abusers.”
And that includes educating children as well as sheltering them.