The Ex-Files: Can I stop my ex from buying our kids a phone?

OPINION:

Q: My husband and I split up recently. We have two young children. My eldest, who is turning 10 next year, has said to both of us that he would like a phone for his birthday. I am against this, as I believe he is too young and that he has no need for a phone at this age. My husband believes he should get what he wants. Can I stop my husband from giving my son a phone? I believe it will not be good for him and that he will be healthier without one.

A: WHAT’S THE ISSUE?

Smartphones are not going to disappear anytime soon; 45 per cent of the world’s population own one, and 67 per cent of people own a mobile device (this includes iPods, iPads, and other tablets.) The important question for any parent is “when should my child get one?”

This is a difficult decision for any parent and being separated only makes this discussion harder. You and your ex-partner may have different ideas about what is best for your children. The important thing to keep in mind in any disagreement is that at the end of the day you both believe you are arguing for what is best for your children.

For this reason, communicating openly and being willing to compromise are incredibly important.

WHAT KIND OF ISSUE IS THIS? WHY DOES THIS MATTER?

Even though you have separated, you and your ex-partner are still joint guardians of your children. A ‘joint’ relationship means that one partner cannot make important decisions regarding healthcare, religion, culture, language and about where they live without consulting the other party. Guardianship decisions require consensus.

While you could argue that something as simple as a smartphone does not fall within the criteria listed above, there is research to say overexposure to social media and the internet in general at a young age can be detrimental.

Even if you and your ex-partner do not see this as a guardianship decision, the fact that you are still joint guardians means that you will need to work together and compromise on certain issues.

A child having a phone at a young age is useful, allowing them to get in contact with you or your ex-partner at any time. This can help your children feel connected to both parents even when you are living apart. You have to balance this with your worries of phone addiction, especially about social media.

Documentaries such as “The Social Dilemma” and “The Great Hack” have illustrated the risks around social media use, and such risks should not be taken lightly. For young children especially, phones should be seen as tools, and not toys.

STRATEGIES FOR COMPROMISE

Consistency is one thing your children need m. This means that a compromise is going to be the best for parents and children. As a parent, you won’t worry every time your child spends time with your ex-partner, as you know there are rules you have both agreed to. For your children, they can relax and not worry about changing their behaviour when moving between one parent and another.

1. Compromise between the two of you

If you don’t want any outside parties involved in the discussion, then sitting down with your ex-partner and trying to reach a compromise is the best way forward. This means being open and honest with them, as they will not be willing to communicate if they feel you are not being honest.

Start by talking about the outcome you want, and why you want it. This can help your ex-partner understand where you are coming from and can also prompt them to do the same. By understanding each other’s point of view, you may find it easier to meet in the middle. You cannot compromise without knowing what your ex-partner wants.

Compromise could mean set hours for phone usage, and taking it away at bedtime. It may mean having a child lock on it, preventing use of certain websites. It may mean phone usage is supervised, and that all apps downloaded have to be checked.

Where you compromise will depend on what you want. Sometimes understanding what the other party wants is half the battle.

2. Informal mediation assisted by an unbiased third party

Where discussion has stalled, an inexpensive option could be the introduction of a third party, who can ask questions about what each party wants and where they are willing to compromise.

Mediation, by way of a friend or a family member, can help move the discussion forward where there is a stalemate. Where you and your ex-partner cannot agree on a subject, bringing someone else in to ask questions about what you are willing to compromise on is useful. You aren’t willing to allow your child to keep their phone with them after bedtime? Suppose it can only be used for messaging services? You don’t want them to use social media? Suppose you can log into their account at the end of each day and check their activity?

Sometimes parties can become stuck on a point, and not see any other option. A third party, new to the discussion, may help you approach things from a new angle, providing a fresh perspective from which you and your ex-partner can approach the issue.

3. Formal mediation assisted by a professional

Where friends and family can’t help, getting a mediation trained lawyer or professional who specialises in dispute resolution will almost always lead to a fair outcome. A professional mediator will not lead the discussion, but instead prompt each party to be more forthcoming about what they want.

While this is the most expensive option so far, it will be less costly than court every time. More importantly, going to court should be avoided at all costs. As soon as you step into the courtroom with your ex-partner you damage your relationship with them, and with your children as a result. Your kids want nothing more than for mum and dad to get along. Stepping into a court room will only make the conflict worse.

CONCLUSION

When discussing any big change in your children’s lives with your ex-partner, you children’s interests should always be at the front of your mind. This means always acting for them, and never falling into the trap of arguing for the sake of arguing.

For a child, a phone can be a tool to help them talk to you when they need to. How you navigate this decision is up to you and your partner. Keep in mind that you are working together, and remember that at the end of the day, you both want the best for your children.

– Jeremy Sutton is a senior family lawyer, specialising in divorce cases where there are significant assets, including family trusts and complex business structures.

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