The SmartPhone- Is Your Child Safe

My son is 10yrs old and owns a smart phone.

Reason being – once upon a time when he was six, he asked repeatedly for a phone and the promise was “When you get to 10 years old son you’ll get a phone as your birthday present, not now!” Well………… shock shock shock – the four years miraculously flew past and yes – the phone promise that was made many years ago had to be honoured. The boy counted down the four years, birthday after birthday. So be careful about what you promise – time does fly 

That aside, my worst fears about the phone are largely unwarranted at the moment. I was in dread of him stumbling upon weird sites or getting addicted to his phone, with it becoming an extension of his hand as I have witnessed with so many others. So far so good, He gets his Kshs 50 airtime allowance per week (which gets over in a day and he has to wait patiently till the next week) that he uses to download some interesting racing and super hero games that he invites his friends to play, and they get all swelled up with pride at their high scores and competitive performance.

Well – that was until this weekend when I checked his phone as I regularly do, and found some rather concerning WhatsApp conversations. You see his friend Nathan had added him to a WhatsApp group called Chelsea Fans, that has about 12 people in it. My son being the curious fellow he is was keen to know who the rest of the people in the group were that he didn’t know or have their numbers. And so he’d written texts to each one of them saying – “Hi, I’m Gee, I’m Nathan’s friend. Who are you and how do you know Nathan?”

There were different responses with some wondering who exactly he is and others readily exchanging information. In fact, there were some lengthy back and forth conversations about where they live, what school they go to and what their favourite football teams are. There was one very interesting conversation with a girl called Kate – who asked Gee how old he is, and when he said 10, she said “Hey! I’m 8 years older than you”

Well – all sounding innocent right? A conversation amongst youngsters getting to know each other all through a common friend Nathan. But is that really it? Are these not strangers? Isn’t the information being exchanged rather personal? What if………….. just what if………………..?

And so we had a formal sit down to talk about the dangers and the risks of ‘talking to strangers’. Albeit on phone and through the ‘introduction’ of a common friend, these people didn’t seem like the typical strangers that one would meet on the streets and keep far away from, they still remain strangers. And so we had a repeat conversation about being extremely wary of strangers and I had to re-write the -Do Not- rules to include: Do not talk to strangers, in person or on the phone; Do not engage with anyone you do not know and have not met; Do not provide any personal information about yourself, where you live, your names, your school or anything to anyone who doesn’t know you; and do not do anything or say anything to anyone on phone that you wouldn’t do in person.

He understood it. I could see that he had caught on. And especially because of the seriousness with which I was delivering the message, he could tell this was to be internalized and practised. In his 10 year old still uncorrupted mind though, he wondered several times about the ‘why’ of it. He couldn’t quite see the danger.

And so trying to balance the conversation to not scare my son away from being adventurous in life and always running away from his shadow, and at the same time instill a sense of caution and to not be too trusting, I explained that “Phones may sometimes mask criminals. And because you cannot see the person and therefore cannot tell if they are telling the truth or not, some ill-intentioned adult can masquerade as a child and get all the necessary information from you including your location and then come and kidnap you.” Now that explanation hit home. I could see the dawning recognition and the slight tinge of fear at the thought of being kidnapped after revealing where he lives.

So yes – the smart phone has indeed come to improve our lives and opens up a world of opportunity. Communication has become that much easier and technology does have a way of transforming lives when used for its intended purpose. The dangers however are real and the exposure our children are faced with alarming. We could bury our heads in the sand and declare – we will NEVER buy our children phones and therefore keep them away from danger, but how practical is that?

It sounds safe alright, but the consequences may be even more dire. The desire, desperation, bereftness and want your child may experience amongst peers would have ‘having a phone’ take on more life and meaning than it should. Another argument avers that you’re better off having your child with their own phone that you can monitor and provide correction as necessary, rather than have them access their friends’ phones that you have no control over hand no access to provide direction.

And of course – the cell phone is only an extension of who your child already is. Cell phones do not change people, only people do. If they are grounded and rooted in values and you are providing loving firm parenting, then the risk of radical waywardness shouldn’t give you sleepless nights.

Whatever you decide though and at whatever age you finally make the decision if at all, it is quantity time not quality time that counts for children. Quantity time including being completely on top of what they watch, who they play with, what they are exposed to, who their friends are and of course what phone activities they are up to.

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