Wednesday Wisdom

January 22, 2020

Family Digital Values

By Dr Kathy Weston

Family Digital Values


One of the major news items today has been about the tightening up of rules to protect the privacy of children as they navigate the world of social media.

The onus is shifting from young users onto big tech companies, questioning what they are doing to protect children’s privacy, data and mental health. Whilst encouraging, parents shouldn’t wait until the autumn of 2021 for rules to come into play, which may, or may not, be adopted by social media companies.

Our children’s relationship to digital technology begins in family life. It is parents who purchase phones for children, not their teacher, not their school and nor the government. Some of the parents that I heard participating in news clips today allowed their children to use social media when they were still at primary school and were angry that companies like Instagram hadn’t protected their child from explicit material.

An equivalent metaphor is allowing children to dip their hand into a large, stinky dustbin and being surprised when they encounter something deeply unpleasant. Let’s be honest about it. If you choose to give your child access to social media under the age of 13, be ready for them to access inappropriate material purposefully and even inadvertently.

Do they have the digital skills and emotional resilience to cope with what they see, hear and read about themselves?


Parental worry seems weighted more around the fact that their child doesn’t have a phone yet! Will they miss out? Will their friends still invite them for playdates? How will they interact socially without being on WhatsApp? Will it damage their mental health if they don’t have a phone?

I am afraid that this where I want to grab parents by both shoulders, reassure them and beg them not to buy their primary child a phone for fear that they will miss out. If parents aren’t able to cope with peer pressure, how will children ever learn to cope?

WhatsApp is designed for people over the age of 16 for a reason. I have lost count of the parents who have contacted me to tell me their child has been bullied on WhatsApp, has been sent inappropriate images, or is bereft because their friend unfollowed them on Instagram.

My message to you is this: before you give your child a phone, ensure that you have created your own set of digital values as a family and that you have talked about the things that can happen online, along with how to navigate these challenges.

If your child is requesting a mobile phone because they ‘need an alarm clock’, buy them a clock! If they are saying that they ‘need to talk to their friends after school’, let them use the landline, or even your phone. If they are walking to and from school and need to text you to let you know they have arrived, they still don’t need the latest iPhone.


The jury is still out on the long-term data linking mental health and children’s use of social media.

We know that for some older teens, social media can be a lifeline, particularly if they are suffering from isolation, loneliness, or are struggling with issues such as sexual identity. However, young children are still very much exploring friendships, who they are and how the world responds to them through the primary years. By introducing phones and, in particular, social media to them, it can have a distorting effect.

Hearing negative comments about yourself at an age and stage when you are very sensitive to feedback, can be threatening to self-esteem and resilience.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

For parents in Tooled Up schools, if you are weighing up the pros and cons of giving your child a phone, you might want to think about reading a little something I made earlier on the topic!