These days, kids as young as six years old own cellphones. The argument many parents put forward to justify the decision centres on safety and wanting their children to be able to have access to resources to be able to seek help, whether from them or the police, in case of an emergency.
But, a study conducted by researchers from Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts among 4 584 primary school children aged between eight and 11 found that children who own a cellphone were significantly more likely to report being a victim of cyber-bullying and becoming a bully themselves.
“Parents often cite the benefits of giving their child a cellphone, but our research suggest that giving young children these devices may have unforeseen risks as well,” says study co-author Dr Elizabeth Englander, a professor of psychology at Bridgewater State University.
The research found that more than half of Grade 3 bullies carried cellphones, compared to 35% of children who owned cellphones, but weren’t bullies.
READ MORE: How to deal with your child being bullied
Even more dramatically, three-quarters of Grade 3 cyber-bullies carried cellphones, compared to only 37% of Grade 3 pupils uninvolved in cyber-bullying. Results were similar, but a little weaker, for children in Grades 4 and 5.
The researchers say the increased risk of cyber-bullying related to phone ownership could be tied to increased opportunity and vulnerability. Continuous access to social media and texting, they say, increases online interactions, provides more opportunities to engage both positively and negatively with peers, and increases the chance of an impulsive response to peers’ postings and messages.
Englander shares a few strategies to help minimise your child’s risk to becoming a bully or being bullied.
- Establish ownership
The phone is not your child’s – it’s yours. Thus, you always have the right to look at it. By checking your child’s phone, you may detect messages or posts that can suggest involvement in bullying or cyber-bullying. A 2012 MacAfee study found that half of kids changed their online behaviour if they believed their parents were checking on them.
2. Take cellphones out of dinnertime
Adopt a “no devices at the dinner table rule”. Family dinners can help protect kids from bullying because dinnertime can be a time to connect emotionally, even when no conversations of deep importance take place. It can also be a time to discuss challenges and difficulties, and to debate solutions and strategies, with input from the people who love you.
3. Limit use during homework
Listening to music can be OK, but watching videos and TV shows or playing games shouldn’t happen while homework is being completed.
READ MORE: What to do when you’re being bullied at work
Studies that look at multi-tasking agree that it degrades memory, learning and cognitive performance.
4. Don’t allow use before bedtime
It’s been well-documented that bright screens right before bed can delay or interrupt sleep patterns. Sleep problems, in turn, have been linked to becoming involved in bullying. To promote healthy sleep and reduce the odds of bullying, help your child practice good sleep preparation habits by putting away digital devices an hour before bedtime. If they want to read from their device, use an app that has a UVB filter or dim and “flip” the screen to a black background.
5. Instil responsibility
Carrying a cellphone isn’t a right – it’s a privilege. As a parent, encourage responsible cellphone use by linking digital privileges with responsibilities. Show children how to budget Internet time. Teach your kids that discussing social problems is part of being mature enough to carry a cellphone.