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4.12.3 Mobile Phones for Children in Care


  1. Introduction
  2. Primary School Children
  3. Secondary School Children
  4. Being Healthy
  5. Staying Safe
  6. Enjoying and Achieving
  7. Make a Positive Contribution
  8. Achieve Economic Well-Being
  9. Setting Boundaries
  10. Reviewing the Plan
  11. Removal of the Mobile Phone

1. Introduction

For the most people, especially young people, mobile phones have become indispensable, allowing for contact anytime, anywhere. For Looked After Children in particular, mobile phones have a number of potential benefits; they can help in maintaining contact with family and friends, and are often seen by young people themselves as an important way to keep safe. However there also potential risks to young people from the use of mobile phones, largely connected to the use of social media on smart or other web enabled phones.

Consideration should be given during placement planning as to whether a child will be allowed a mobile, and ground rules for its safe use agreed. Arrangements for the access to and use of mobile phones should be set out in writing, for example, in the Children’s Guide or a Placement Plan for an individual child.

2. Primary School Children

It is not routinely recommended that children at Primary School are given mobile phone.

3. Secondary School Children

Most children of secondary school age have their own mobile phones, and as Corporate Parents we would always want Looked After Young People in our care to have the same opportunities and advantages as their peers.

However, we also have a responsibility to keep children in our care safe, and it is important that any potential risks linked to mobile phones are considered by social workers and carers.

4. Being Healthy

The latest Department for Health and Social Care guidance has concluded that despite concerns that children might be more vulnerable to any health risks from the use of mobile phones because their body and nervous system are still developing, research carried out to date has not found any clear evidence of a link between mobile phone use and childhood cancers such as leukaemia.

Nonetheless, they recommend that children only use mobile phones for essential purposes and keep all calls short as a precaution.

Carers should discuss the following:

  • Does the young person understand potential health risks associated with the use of mobile phones?
  • Do they know the health benefits of texting, as opposed to calling?
  • Do they recognise the need to keep calls brief and why they are being asked to do this?

5. Staying Safe

There are advantages and disadvantages to a young person having their own mobile phone. The positives might include; if the young person needs urgent help, whilst out and about, or to advise carers they are running late, and being able to maintain contact with family and friends. Many young people are clear that having a mobile adds to their sense of security and that they feel safer, as a result of having a mobile with them.

Conversely, having a mobile can place a young person at risk of theft / robbery', bullying by text / cyberbullying, sexting and grooming by older people or others who pose a risk.

Carers should discuss the following with young people:

  • 'If you received a random text, what would you do?'
  • 'What cyber bullying is, and how to get help'
  • 'Who would you want to give your number to?'
  • 'How would a mobile keep you safe?'
  • Who would you ring in an emergency?
  • 'How would you keep yourself - and the mobile safe?'

Grooming (for sexual exploitation or radicalisation) via mobiles can be a serious issue particularly for young people living in residential care. When a carer has any concerns about potential grooming, they should contact the young person’s social worker immediately. The social worker should alert their manager and a plan developed to keep that young person safe.

When communicating online, children can become less wary and talk about things far more openly than they might when communicating face to face. Children should be supported to understand that when they use digital technology they should not give out personal information, particularly their name, address or school or mobile phone number to anyone they do not know or trust. If they have been asked for such information, they should always check with their carer other before providing such details. It is also important that they understand why they must take a parent / carer or trusted adult with them if they meet someone face to face whom they have only previously met on-line.

Safe use of Social Networking Sites - Smartphones have a GPS (Global Positioning System) facility that shows their location. Some websites and apps like Facebook, can use this to publish the user's location. This means that when young person posts a message or photo on a social network, their location may also be added.  It is important to talk to children about location settings and what the risks might be. They can be switched off if necessary. Young people should not share information on social networking sites which identifies other looked after children or the location of residential units.

Taking and sending pictures - Sometimes children and young people use their smartphones and tablets for sexting – taking and sending explicit pictures of themselves. As soon as they send the image to another person, they lose control over where and how that image is shared. It is important to talk to young people about the dangers of talking and sharing explicit photos by mobile phone and online. This discussion should include the potential legal implications.

Setting up parental controls - Parental controls can be used on mobile phones and tablets to restrict access certain material online. Some providers offer different levels of control, that you can change based on your child's age. Vodafone, O2, three and EE all provide free parental control services. For younger children in particular controls are recommended on their devices to keep them safe.

Carers should talk to children about the sort of things which are suitable for them to see.

Parent protection apps - Installing parent protection apps a child's smartphone or tablet can help carers keep track of what they're getting up to. Features vary from app to app, but they include things like:

  • Alerting you if your child tries to access a blocked site;
  • Keeping a record of text messages they send and receive.

You can also set times when the device can and can't be used – for example, you could block your child's smartphone or tablet during school hours and overnight. It is important to strike the right balance between keeping an eye on children and young people and giving them the independence and freedom to explore. Simply sheltering them from the online world might not help them in the long run. They need a chance to learn how to behave online, and find out what's out there.

6. Enjoying and Achieving

Mobile phones can be an important way for young people to stay in touch with their friends, and can be good for children's social lives. However they may affect concentration, interfere with homework and disturb sleep patterns.

It is important to get the balance of activities right. The following should be discussed with young people in relation to their phone use:

  • Will they switch the phone off at night (or allow the carer to take it, for re charging, overnight), so they have uninterrupted sleep?
  • Does the young person accept they need to switch off their phone in lessons?
  • Does the school the young person attends have a mobile phone policy and will she/ he respect it?

There can be an issue of birth parents/ family ringing a young person, at times, or in ways, which are not helpful. An example might be if the adult is ringing for their comfort, to meet their own needs, or under the influence of substances. This can be a source of additional, unhelpful pressure for the young person. Carers need to consider if this could be a potential difficulty and how to address this, with the young person they are looking after. In these circumstances, it will be necessary to involve the child's social worker. Their role will be to explain the Local Authority policy to the relative and highlight that mobiles can be withdrawn, temporarily or permanently, if it is felt that the continuing use is not in that young person's best interest.

7. Make a Positive Contribution

Having a mobile can support a young person, in developing a full, active and positive social life. This can build confidence and support the young person in not only feeling a 'full member' of the community but also contribute to their developing aspirations for the future.

8. Achieve Economic Well-Being

Mobile phones can be expensive to run and it is important that young people learn how to manage the costs involved in using a mobile. Carers should explain that extra costs that might be incurred if they by using the internet etc. which may not be included in their contract.

Be clear with the children / young person that the phone is their responsibility, and that if they lend their phone to a friend, give it away or swap it won’t be replaced automatically.

9. Setting Boundaries

Safe use of a mobile phone relies on ongoing dialogue between carers and young people.

Suggested boundaries include:

  • No mobile phones in the bedroom at night;
  • No mobile phones at the table during mealtimes;
  • No mobile hones during homework time.

Setting boundaries at the outset can help to avoid arguments at a later date.

10. Reviewing the Plan

If young people and carers cannot agree on the use of mobile phones, there are a number of strategies which can be considered:

  • A written agreement between young person, carer and if needed, the social worker, which outlines the basis on which the mobile has been provided and the circumstances which might lead to its confiscation;
  • A progress meeting to discuss the issue, in the context of other problems also being apparent;
  • Access to the Children’s Rights Service and the complaints procedure.

Children do make mistakes so if things go wrong or they come across something that makes them feel uncomfortable, they should know they can always talk to their carers about it.

11. Removal of the Mobile Phone

If there are concerns about the use of the mobile phone, then the carer should consider restricting its use or confiscating it pending consultation with the social worker and other relevant professionals. Examples of circumstances which could lead to the restricted use or confiscation of the mobile are as follows:

  • Safeguarding concerns: the young person is putting her/himself at risk or others are posing a risk through the mobile phone, including ‘sexting’;
  • Safeguarding concerns: the young person poses a risk to others through the use of the phone, for example by bullying or intimidating;
  • The young person is using the phone excessively to the extent that achievements and/ or involvement in other areas of activity or daily routines are being adversely affected.

The decision to remove the mobile phone should be one of last resort, taken when other measures have failed. This decision should itself be reviewed regularly and the phone returned as soon as possible. Any decision to remove the mobile phone for a long period (more than a few days) should be endorsed by the Safeguarding/LAC/Pathway Team Manager, with confirmation for the reasons in writing to the young person and a copy to the carer.

Young people in care must be advised of any concerns about the use of the mobile and of their right to access the children’s participation service and the complaints procedure throughout these processes.