Pitfalls of allowing kids a mobile phone

By James Fuller

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The case of a Bay of Plenty teacher accused of sending inappropriate text messages to a 10-year-old student has reignited the debate over the correct age for children to own mobile phones.

Bart de Jong, who is now studying IT in Tauranga, was acquitted on a technicality after sending 1640 text messages to the girl at a Whakatane school.

Judge Louis Bidois called de Jong's behaviour deplorable and disturbing.

"The charge was not made out - not because you proved your innocence, but because the legislation was not well drafted," Judge Bidois said.

The case highlighted one danger which can arise when children have access to mobile phones. However, many parents believe the day-to-day benefits of remaining in contact with their children outweigh the potential issues of misuse of this kind.

Dave Randell, principal of Otumoetai College, said "the use and misuse of phones is a big issue".

The use of phone and social media messaging between teachers and pupils can be a minefield even for the well-intentioned.

Mr Randell said he had never had a problem at his school but sent a reminder out to his staff recently about appropriate conduct.

"I sent out a reminder to staff just a couple of weeks ago about keeping clear professional boundaries. For instance, when a hockey or volleyball practice is cancelled it's a great way of letting people know quickly. But I reminded them there should not be any personal message attached to that which could be misinterpreted. I also reminded teachers not to share any personal information with students."

Mr Randell said his pupils were allowed to use mobile phones in the classroom but "not for personal messaging".

"These are not simply phones anymore, gone are the days of just phone and text. They are a great learning tool. They can be used as calculators, to check the weather forecast, to research a word in a foreign language, the list is endless."

However, Mr Randell said the proliferation of mobile phones and the advent of the social media age had "been terrible for bullying".

Clinical psychologist Tanzi Bennison, of Tauranga's Sunflower Consulting, said the case of Bart de Jong showed the perils of children being drawn into an adult world.

"We need to be really careful," she said. "Children and even teenagers are not cognitively able to process and think through properly the consequences of their actions. They become involved in this world emotionally, socially and cognitively, that they are not equipped to deal with.

"That is why parental inveiglement and knowledge about how a phone is being used is really important. If it's just for a safety measure then put the limitations and boundaries on it to make sure it is only used for that purpose.

"You need to open up that ongoing dialogue with your child about the safety considerations of cellphones and why they're not allowed to use them in certain ways."

Ms Bennison said it was difficult to place an age barrier on mobile phones.

"They need to be old enough to understand the risks associated with cellphones, sharing their number with others or using it inappropriately. They need to understand there will be a consequence and parents can impose a consequence for that. But when that is appropriate depends a lot on the child."

She said many youngsters possessed mobile phones without their parents' knowledge in any case.

"Pretty much all college kids have cellphones and a large proportion of intermediate school kids own them.

"A lot might have been intended for safety situations but the children are using them for a whole lot of other things too. I'm not sure parents are always aware of that. It opens them up to bullying, it opens them up to sexting and all sorts of things.

"I have heard of children who have one phone to keep in touch with mum and dad and then one or two other phones that mum and dad don't know about. So the child is manipulating the situation and they are in control.

"That's where it gets dangerous. Parents might feel like they've got their finger on the pulse but there's another side to the story.

"The danger of that as well is that the child has already lied about the phone usage so if they are being bullied or exposed to inappropriate information or pictures then they can't go to their parents because they would be afraid of getting into more trouble."

One parent who has had his mind changed about children's use of mobile phones is Need-a-Nerd Tauranga franchise owner Paul Logan.

"My daughter goes to an intermediate school in the Bay and we were sent a parental survey about whether we agreed with children having mobile phones in class. My wife, who is a primary school teacher, said it was okay and my first inkling was that it wasn't. But I've reconsidered that now.

"Speaking as a parent ... I would say there are many benefits of mobile phones and that they have a role in education."

Mr Logan's daughter was 11 when she was allowed a mobile phone. He said the question of the correct age was down to parental choice.

"As long as the boundaries are set in place and you discuss them with your child, that is the important thing. That access to technology, they're already seeking it anyway, so you may as well manage it.

"I've had a complete turnaround in the last three weeks really because I've been opened up to what the kids can use the phones for and how it can benefit their education.

"In many cases we have to give them benefit of the doubt because they're more aware of the technology than us old crusties. You're far better to manage it and learn about it than stick your head in the sand."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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