Little boy watching something on a smartphone

Keeping your child safe on their smartphone

Published on
21 August 2023

Read tips from a range of experts on how to help children stay safe on their smartphones.

The summer before starting secondary school is a common time for parents and carers to buy their children their first mobile phone (Kidscape, 2022). Up to 91% of 11-year-olds own one (BBC, 2022).  

Having a mobile phone can help your child to be more independent if you know you can always contact them and find out where they are. Phones can also support learning and allow your child to build stronger relationships with their friends. However, a phone can expose them to new risks and it’s important for you and them to be aware of these.  

In this blog, a range of experts share things they’d suggest you do if you’re giving your child their first mobile. 

Be involved in your child’s online life, just as you would their offline life. 

Show interest in your child’s digital life, get to know the games and platforms that they like and what they are using their mobile phone for. Not only is this a way for you to connect, but it’ll also help you understand different platforms and apps, their features and whether they’re appropriate for your child or not.   

Being open and talking to children about what they do online, as well as encouraging them to use devices in communal areas such as the lounge or kitchen, can help you have more awareness of what they’re watching, who they are talking to, and what games they’re playing online.

Jess Edwards

Senior Policy Adviser, Barnardo’s

If your child does disclose that something has happened to them whilst online, try to stay calm and ensure you don’t react in a way that the child could interpret as punishment, such as banning them from using devices or apps. Read more advice about talking to your child about their safety and wellbeing.

Understand and use parental controls 

Obviously, you can’t always be watching when your child is using their mobile phone. Setting up parental controls can help to limit what content your child can see and what they can do on their phone. These controls can stop your child searching for content that isn’t age-appropriate, set limits on the time of day your child can go online and how long for, and prevent them for doing things like making in-app purchases. 

Visit the Internet Matters website for free, practical guides on how to set up parental controls on different mobile phones, as well as other devices.  

However, it’s important to remember that parental controls are not 100% effective, with some inappropriate content still getting through filters and restrictions. Research found more than half (51%) of 11- to 13-year-olds reported that they had seen pornography at some point, rising to 66% of 14–15-year-olds. The report also demonstrated a discrepancy between parents’ views and what children actually experienced. Three quarters (75%) of parents felt that their child would not have seen pornography online. But of their children, more than half (53%) said they had in fact seen it (BBFC, 2019).  

Whilst parental controls will reduce the chances of your child seeing something they’re not ready for, inappropriate content can still get through. Supervise younger children and keep talking about their online lives.

Will Gardener

CEO of Childnet  

As a child is likely to still see inappropriate or upsetting content however many controls you install it’s important that you are prepared to talk to them about it openly and honestly, without blame, so your child can understand potential dangers and know what to do if they do see harmful content.

Read our guide on talking to children about keeping safe online

Understand what apps they’re using

Children and young people may use a range of different websites and apps for entertainment, information or socialising with people. It’s important to know what apps and websites they’re using so both you and they can be aware of the different risks associated with each. 

Show interest in what your child is using, and maybe even explore the apps and sites yourself to check how they work. For example, you could check chat and commenting functions within different apps and the privacy settings for them, to see if they are open to everyone or just to people your child is friends with. 

Exploiters use apps, online games and websites in a variety of ways to identify, approach or engage children without detection, that is why it is important to empower your child to stay safe by keeping communication open. Encourage them to talk to you if anyone online reaches out who they don't know or is making them feel uncomfortable.

Bethan Kelly

National Programme Development Manager for Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation, Barnardo's 

For more detailed information about the possible sites and apps children might use from Twitch to Snapchat, see the Internet Matter’s website

Try and lead by example 

We all know the saying "do as I say, not as I do". Alongside parental controls, one of the best ways we can protect children is to lead by example. This could mean being aware of your own use of technology, asking children’s permission before sharing a picture of them online or talking about your own digital life.

Suzanne Taylor 

Assistant Director Impact - Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation at Barnardo’s

Establish some household rules that everyone, including adults, agree to follow which encourage safe and responsible phone use.  

You can read good suggestions on leading by example and being a digital role model for your child on the Vodaphone website. 

Point your children in the direction of content that can help them manage their online life 

It’s a common experience to find that as children move into their teenage years, they are likely to want advice and guidance from those other than parents and carers. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest it’s part of changes in the brain that happen during this time as they seek more independence (Psychology Today, 2022). Highlighting online content that will give your child good, trustworthy advice can be a way to provide them that support. This could also help to empower them to take ownership of their own safety and encourage them to practise assessing risks themselves, which can improve decision making skills.  

Barnardo’s My Mental Health website has resources written for young people on a variety of topics, including an article on the relationship between social media and self-esteem

Childline’s website also has good resources aimed at children and young people on online and mobile safety.

We know that there is only so much parents can do to help keep their children safe, and social media and other internet companies need to do more to protect children on their apps. We have been calling for the Online Safety Bill to strengthen protection for children online, and the Government has agreed to introduce age-verification measures for pornographic content wherever it is found online, meaning that children will not be able to access it. Read more about our campaigning work on online safety

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Sign our petition to support exploited children

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