Having a child changes your life forever. Getting a few minutes of peace and quiet can be difficult, so sometimes technology can be a huge helping hand. If it keeps them quiet for five or ten minutes so that we can actually go to the bathroom without them trailing in behind us, why not?

The internet is an endless abyss of information. It can help us out, should our children desperately need to know the answers to questions such as: 'How many stars are in the sky?', 'How high can trees grow?', 'How many elephants are in the world?' or whatever else pops into their heads.

It's no wonder that the popularity of handing a child a smartphone for ten minutes' rest is a growing trend. However, it's important to know that there can be detrimental effects in doing this too often. 

The internet is also a global network that can have the darkest and most sinister content, and when your child has your phone, or their own phone, this content is only a click away. 

Fear of Missing Out
A study carried out by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that, although engaging in various forms of social media can benefit children and adolescents by enhancing communication and social connection, it can also be an addictive habit, with 22% of teenagers logging in to their social media accounts ten times a day.

It says that "using social media becomes a risk to adolescents more often than most adults realize" with most risks falling into the following categories: peer-to-peer; inappropriate content; lack of understanding of online privacy issues; and outside influences of third-party advertising groups'. And today, the age of children using social media is getting younger and younger. 

iPhones expose your child to a world of the unknown, and as we are becoming more and more educated regarding cyber-bullying and online harassment, privacy and digital footprint along with "sexting" and 'social media depression', it's important that as a parent to keep a close eye - especially if your children have social media accounts.

Last year, Psychologist Melissa G. Hunt published No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression in the December Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. In her research, Hunt found that by limiting Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat use to ten minutes per platform, per day, the test group of undergraduates showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression over three weeks.

"Our findings strongly suggest that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in well-being," read the report.

Alongside the rise in this pressure to always be engaged is the rise of cyber-bullying, something that is often difficult to detect as it occurs online. We contacted a Dublin secondary school teacher for his opinion on the current climate. Wishing to remain anonymous, he told RTÉ LifeStyle that, in his opinion, online bullying is much more prevalent than when he was a school-goer.

"The students can never get away. It's almost as if they feel anxious if they don't reply to a text, whether the text is good or bad. If nasty text messages are sent, we then have a case of cyber-bullying on our hands.

"There is a lot of communication done through devices nowadays, so cyber-bullying is becoming a lot more common, and it's a lot harder to get away from. Therefore the repercussions can be a lot worse".

He said that, like in most schools, they have a safe internet usage policy: "We also have a separate screen in our computer room that allows the teachers to see the online activity of each individual in the room. There are also certain filters that can be put on certain websites. Our filter is the safest one so they can't even look at YouTube".

Phones can also be damaging to our children's eye-sight, even when they're just watching cartoons on YouTube. One study found that by 2050 half of the world's population will have some form of myopia, in comparison the rate now which is only 23%. 

Kevin Kelly, Head of Policy and Advocacy for The NCBI, a non-profit charity for the visually impaired, says that "prolonged usage of the iPhone is damaging to the eye because of the blue-violet light within the phone.

"The light causes the eye to blink less causing damage to the back of the eye". Kelly warned, "it's important to take breaks regularly and to get your eyes tested with an optician". 

Signs of addiction 
A 2016 survey carried out by Common Sense Media found that 50% of teenagers in the US feel addicted to their iPhone and 59% of parents agree that they were addicted. Children can also feel a sense of withdrawal if the gadget they're using before they can walk is taken away from them. That's when we know there's a problem. 

It's always a struggle to try and get a child or a teenager to depart from their very valued gadget, whether it is an iPad or an iPhone. Principle clinical psychologist in Dublin, Isolde Blau says that "giving a child a phone with uncontrolled internet is very dangerous. Both the child and the parents need to be educated regarding the dangers involved". 

She said that signs of addiction can be if the child is constantly preoccupied with it and is distressed when it's taken away.

She also states that it is dangerous to use screen time as a reward, "this can reinforce addiction". Instead, she suggests that screen time should be an agreement, not something dependent on good behavior. 

The age when a child should be allowed on the internet or not should be judged by their development and not chronologically according to Dr. Blau. 

"If a parent knows that their child understands the difference between reality and online reality it's much safer. However, if a child thinks that killing a character online and the same character resurrects is reality, this is a distorted view and should, therefore, avoid letting the child online.

"That's one way of figuring out whether a child is ready to go online. The standard age of a child be aware of this would be around 5, but this really depends," says Blau.  

We also asked Dr. Blau what she thinks the benefits of online surfing are and she said, "if a child has a phone with the internet, it can safeguard them in ways, such as being able to track where they are. They are also more contactable. The internet also keeps them in-tune with what's going on in the world. There so many perspectives out there, the internet can promote the child to develop an opinion of their own".

Is a 'dumbphone' a good idea? 
A good old Nokia could put your mind at ease. Knowing your child only has access to games like Snake is a reassuring aspect of the phone. Dr. Blau says that "age-dependent, the less internet the phone has the better".

Blau says that a 'dumbphone' is a good option because of it's limited access to the internet. She did say, however, that if a child does have access to the internet that it's important for parents to always be open regarding the dangers of the internet from a young age. 

The benefits of a 'dumbphone' include: 

  1. It doesn't cost a fortune, so if it breaks, it's not the end of the world. 
  2. It's unlikely to break. A child with a phone made out of glass doesn't really make much sense, but a child with a block-like, nearly unbreakable object seems more appropriate 
  3. It means when you do decide to get your child an iPhone, it will be a huge treat. Going from an old school mobile to an iPhone would mean that it would be appreciated a lot more and they would be more likely to look after it.
  4. Most importantly, they can make calls in an emergency and are easily contactable.

A final note
Technology isn't going anywhere any time soon. We should embrace the positives of the internet, such as the educational and social benefits, but we must always be aware of the possible dangers to both ourselves and our children such as cyber-bullying, online security, and social media addiction.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that children under 5 should have a maximum screen time of one-hour per day and infants less than one-year-old should not be exposed to electronic screens at all.

So, as best you can, try to keep your kids busy with educational games, outdoor activities, and books. When the time comes to introduce technology into their lives, do so as carefully as possible with the help of dumbphones, limited screen time and phone bans at the dinner table.

For more information on internet safety issues and concerns, visit www.webwise.ie