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Almost 25% of six-year-olds have a smartphone


By IMAGE
19th May 2024
Almost 25% of six-year-olds have a smartphone

After the recent alarming figures that revealed the true extent of screen use among young people, Alex Cooney, CEO of Cybersafe Kids, gives parents some much needed guidance in how best to prepare and educate your child for an increasingly digital world.

It’s hard to avoid seeing headlines these days about how smartphones are harming children’s development or how their addiction to social media has contributed to a youth mental health crisis worldwide. According to Jonathan Haidt’s recently published book ‘The Anxious Generation’, in which he is arguing that both those things are true, there are four foundational harms of the phone-based childhood; social deprivation, sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation and addiction. Haidt says, “When we ushered in the phone-based childhood around 2010, we didn’t anticipate these harms. Now, 14 years later, we have research that shows the multifaceted negative impacts of a childhood that includes hours a day spent on smartphones and social media.” 

Given the move by schools such as St Patrick’s NS in Greystones to encourage parents to delay giving smartphones to their children until secondary school, you may think that the “norm” is for children to get them at 12/13 — but this is misleading. The reality is that kids much younger than that have smartphones: a parent survey conducted by Amárach on our behalf earlier this year found that 24% of 6-year-olds have their own smartphone and UK research by Ofcom, indicates that smartphone ownership is even younger in the UK, with  a quarter of 3- to 4-year-olds owning one, leading the UK government to consider banning the sale of smartphones to under-16s and raising the minimum age requirement for social media accounts from 13 to 16.

We can’t deny the fact that our children are growing up in the digital age so rather than questioning when is the “right time” to purchase a smartphone for my child perhaps we should be asking ourselves instead how can I best prepare and educate my child to have a safe experience online when I do decide to give them a smartphone? 

It’s also important to not focus solely on smartphones. Our research shows that young children have tremendous access to the online world with tablets and gaming consoles consistently being the two most popular devices among 8-10 year-olds, and although they might be used more generally in the home, both harmful age-inappropriate content and contact can be encountered just as easily on these kinds of devices. 

Increasingly, we are of the view that it is better to hold off for as long as possible on giving a child any smart device and to wait until your child is at least 13 before you give them a smartphone. That doesn’t mean that they can’t have access to family tablets or game consoles that they’re allowed to use at certain times and in certain places (ideally not in bedrooms and especially not overnight) but in the main, you as the parent/caregiver are keeping an eye on them when they’re online, talking to them about the dos and don’ts of being online, doing things with them online so you have the opportunity to talk about these things in real-time and putting in place clear and consistent boundaries around use and access – essentially preparing them for that greater independence that will come later. 

If you’re worried about not being able to contact them whilst they’re out and about, there are good alternatives available that don’t connect to the internet – traditional ‘dumb’ phones or watches such as the Xplora watch that have GPS tracking and the ability for you to add contact numbers (this option has worked well for me as a parent). 

We’ve just slipped into the habit of giving children devices and giving them access to online games and social media without really thinking it through and too often because ‘everyone else is’, but we can change that. 

If possible try to build a shared community of support from other parents and caregivers, teachers and experts. It is much easier to say no or not yet to your child if you know that others are doing the same.

While your child may resent you for holding off on getting them a smartphone now, they may thank you as an adult for doing exactly that.

Top Tips

Before you even consider entertaining the notion of purchasing a smartphone for your child, ask yourself, is your child ready to take this responsibility on and are YOU ready for the responsibility that comes with it? The online world wasn’t designed for children or with children in mind and the safety of any child with unrestricted and unsupervised access to a smart device is at risk. Whatever you decide, here are some useful tips to guide your decision:

What is the smartphone primarily being bought for? (safety? gaming? calling friends & family?)
If it’s solely for safety and calling friends and family perhaps consider purchasing alternatives suggested above such as traditional ‘dumb’ phones or watches like the Xplora watch that have GPS tracking and the ability for you to add contact numbers.

Have you agreed upon rules of use? (for example, what can be accessed? Can apps and games be downloaded?)
Take time as a parent to review the app or game your child wants to access and decide if it’s appropriate for them. Use helpful websites like Common Sense Media, Webwise or PEGI.

Have you done your research on the type of parental control apps available on Apple or Android?
Most smart devices and online platforms have built-in controls that allow you to limit time, restrict access to certain content, and switch off functions like location, direct messaging, chat rooms or shopping. Use technical restrictions (such as parental controls and privacy settings) but don’t rely on them alone, especially when expectations of privacy increase.

Are you keeping an eye on what they’re doing online and being consistent in applying boundaries?
This should be done openly and transparently. Agree in advance on the conditions that your child is allowed to have a smartphone. Keep a note of their passcode and check their devices whenever you need to, especially when they are younger. As children mature, they will inevitably want more privacy but it’s essential to continue to regularly monitor and supervise their online activity in an atmosphere of trust and transparency, including checking devices and apps for inappropriate content and contacts. 

Alex Cooney is co-founder and CEO of CyberSafeKids