Tag Archives: esafety

Connected Children: How Young is “Too Young” for a Smartphone?

Smartphones are the unavoidable icon of modern life...


The pace with which smartphones have become established is remarkable, they are now as integrated into modern culture as cars or computers. Today around 30% of Children aged 9 own a smart phone, rising to more than 90% by the age of 16 (Mascheroni & Ólafsson, 2015). In the UK, 1 in 8 children have a mobile by the age of 8 (Aviva, 2017). 

While there are a range of benefits to children using technology, there are also a number of undeniable risks. “What age should I give my child a phone?” is a common question we hear from parents. It can be difficult to strike the balance between keeping children safe and socially isolating them.

This Parent's Guide article will examine the statistics and weigh up the pros and cons for parents and children.

Impact of Smartphones on...

Young Children

There is no strict rule as to when children are “ready” for smart phones. Research has noted children of less than 30 months old cannot learn from videos in the same way as real-life. Therefore, one of the most significant positive factors of using technology does not apply to them. 

What age do the benefits (or negatives) of technology begin to impact on children?

It is difficult to be clear about the possible benefits and opportunities of internet usage for young children. Some research will suggest that owning a mobile device will increase readiness for schools. Educational apps and games can help with development of skills that might otherwise be difficult for parents.

On the other hand, there are many reports suggest "too much tech" from a young age negatively impacts on children.  This year, The Guardian reported that children were struggling to hold pencils properly because they had been playing with phones or tablets. In addition, a  University of Toronto report found that “infants with more handheld screen time have an increased risk of an expressive speech delay” (Birken, 2017). They found that every 30 minute increase in the daily use of handheld screens in very young children translated into a 49% increased risk of speech delay.

Another risk related concern is very young people being able to connect with a wide range of individuals. Use of communication apps can leave them vulnerable to grooming. Less obvious, are potential dangers from interactions which are secondary to the purpose of the app. This was seen in 2017 when YouTube reporting function on children's videos had not been working properly.

It is difficult to argue that young children benefit greatly from ownership of a smartphone. While there are certainly some advantages to making judicious usage of educational apps, excessive or unrestricted access is highly detrimental.

However, that's not to say you can't occasionally let your young children watch a YouTube video or Skype with relatives!

Primary Age Children

Around 68% of parents think children should be at least 9 before they get their first phone, and around a third suggesting 12 as a minimum age. Equally, most parents will feel that it is appropriate for teenagers to have access. 

Research tells us that 11 is when most children get their first phone. However, sites which children may want to access on their phone, such as Instagram and Snapchat, require you to be at least 13. Children younger than this could be exposed to content they are not ready for.

Another risk associated with primary aged children having a smartphone, is the the chance of them experiencing cyber-bullying. Research says that younger children would be more likely to report being the victim of physical bullying. Whereas, older pupils would be more likely to report experiencing more types of cyber-bullying. Not having a phone is by no means a guarantee of protection from online-bullying, but the link is significant.

What are the benefits?

Safety is a benefit parents will often think of when it comes to their child owning a phone. It is good to be able to contact your child as they start independent activities, like after school clubs or going out with friends. Access to the internet and services like Google Maps could assist if the child is lost, or unsure of where to ask for help.

Skills children develop by using technology, including smart phones, is increasingly important in later life. A report for the Department of Education in England noted that building digital skills were “an essential contemporary skill set”. Depriving a child of this may also inadvertently disadvantage them.

Additionally, there is the social aspect to having a phone. All parents are familiar with the cry that “everyone else in class has one”. However, statistics suggest that children may not be exaggerating in this regard. The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne Australia released a report in 2017  stating that “Young children owning smartphones is the new normal”. Numbers for the UK broadly align with this. In effect, when deciding when a child should first receive a phone a parent is making a difficult choice that affects not just their safety or education development, but also their social status.

Teenagers and Young Adults

Most teenagers will have a smartphone. They are also extremely avid consumers of online content via their phones. Over a third of young people claiming to be online more than 6 hours a day on weekends and almost a quarter spending this amount of time on week days. UK usage in both cases is above the OECD average, meaning that parents in the UK face a greater challenge than parents of the rest of the world. 

However, the benefits of phone usage can increase with age. Particularly as a young person becomes increasingly independent. With likely access to their own money,  particularly for over 16's, there are less levels of potential parental control. 

Despite the benefits, which the guide has explored, there are concerns around teens phone use too... 

41% of parents said that they find it difficult to control their child’s screen time. 

A report looking at over a thousand teens in Australia found that poor-quality sleep associated with late-night texting or calling was linked to a decline in mental health. The reasons given for such use, particularly late at night, were a “fear of missing out” on content. The reasons for this vary for boys and girls. Many girls noted major US-based social media influencers whose content they consume, means the time differences account for the "need" to be awake and active online at night. On the other hand, boys note that major video game content creators are based in East Asia, again complicating sleep.  Poor sleep, coupled with potential cyber-bullying can have negative effects on teenagers. When they are put into stressful or difficult circumstances without the defence of being well-rested, it is easy to see how it can impact physical and mental health.

Gaming and Sexting

Gaming on phones is something all children can take part in, but it is particularly popular with teenagers. Around 70% of teens play video games, and 84% of teenage boys do. As explored in a previous blog, online gaming comes with its own pros and cons.  It is important to consider gaming when it comes to teenagers smartphone usage. The most popular phone games can have millions of users worldwide, and some argue that they are highly addictive. Regulations are also more lax than more traditional gaming consoles or PCs.

There is also the concern of young people both creating and viewing sexualised content. A JAMA Paediatrics report found that almost 1 in 5 young people had either sent or received sexual content of themselves. As many as 12% admitted to forwarding such an image without the consent of the individual. This suggests not only that sending of this content is common, but there may be negative social pressures on teenagers to engage in it. 

There are serious issues regarding this. Not least moral and ethical, there is also a real danger of legality if the content is of an underage individual. While conversations regarding this content are extremely difficult for parents – but it is equally vital.

Many of the concerns regarding younger children do not necessarily disappear at teenage years, and it can be argued that the concerns of when to expose children to smart phones becomes increasingly complicated.

In Conclusion...

It is undeniable that smartphones are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. You know your child best, and therefore will be in the best position to decide what they access and when. Technology and children's usage of it is a concern for many parents, but it's important to remember that you are not alone in struggling with this subject. Parenting NI is here, for a listening ear and support with not only this but any parenting related issue.  

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Parents’ Week. What’s the Point?

Parents Week logo 2016

This week we’ve been celebrating Parents’ Week. This is an important week in the Parenting NI calendar every October as it gives us the opportunity to highlight the important roles parents play in their children’s lives.

The week also focuses on the need for support for parents. We know that when parents are supported, outcomes for children and young people improve. At a time when pressures and challenges for families are ever increasing, we feel it’s important to ensure parents know there is support available to them and that it is ok to ask for help.

As you all know, this year our focus for Parents’ Week has been ‘Parenting in the Digital Age’. The reason we chose this issue as our theme is because we have been hearing from parents that use of digital technology has posed unique challenges when it comes to parenting.

As part of the week we wanted to give you idea of the types of cases Parenting NI hear from parents regarding digital technology through our Helpline, Counselling and Parenting Programmes.

Sharing Images
A 15 year old girl sent a revealing photo of herself to her boyfriend, innocently thinking that this would be an image that would be kept between them. When the relationship broke down, as teenage romances often do, the boy decided to circulate the image round the classroom. The image then started appearing on various social media accounts, some accounts where even set up pretending to be the girl.

This caused the teenage girl great distress. Feeling alone and that her friends had even turned on her, she finally got the courage to tell her mum what had happened.

At this point mum contacted Parenting NI really concerned about the impact it was having on her daughter and their relationship. As the girl was under 18 the PSNI had to be contacted and the images were eventually removed and those involved were cautioned.

This is something which is happening regularly for young people and so it is important for us to remind our children that sharing images of children under 18, even if it’s you, is illegal and could have serious consequences.

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Mental Health
A dad contacted Parenting NI worried about how his 13 year old daughter had become depressed. He explained that any time he and his partner had tried to talk to her about what was wrong she became really withdrawn and didn’t want to talk about it, usually ending up with the daughter locking herself in her room.

After coming to some Face2Face sessions at Parenting NI with her dad, the young girl revealed that she had been supporting a friend online who was expressing mental health difficulties. This friend had been self harming, and using a pro-self harm social media page to post images of what she was doing. The 13 year old had not known where to turn, so decided she would do her best to encourage her friend not to harm herself. In her desire to try and support her friend this was having a knock on effect on the girls own mental health, causing her to be withdrawn from her family, friends and things she used to like doing.

The girl and her dad are now communicating better and her friend has been able to get the support she needs to get better.

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Grooming
The parents over a 14 year old boy were noticing that he was receiving post with random gifts which he was hiding in his bedroom. The gifts ranged from aftershave to video games, but when they found some designer underwear and other inappropriate gifts they became very suspicious and worried.

With some guidance from Parenting NI’s Helpline mum and dad sat their son down for a chat one evening to let him know they knew about the packages he was receiving. The boy eventually admitted that he had made a new “friend” on a gaming site he had been playing on in the evenings and that this friend had started sending him gifts because he had helped him complete some really difficult levels on the game and he wanted to say thank you. The boy’s parents were really concerned that he had given out their address to a stranger. After some further conversation, the boy revealed that his online friend started asking for pictures in return for the gifts, and wanted to video chat with him or maybe even meet in person.

Parenting NI was able to support the parents of the 14 year old boy to report the particular user that had been sending the gifts to their son and open up communication within the family.

These are all examples of scenarios which we help to support parents with through our services. The intention of sharing them with you isn’t to frighten you or cause you to disengage further from what your child is doing online, but rather to show that this is the reality. These are the sort of issues our young people are experiencing, and therefore the kinds of things we as parents, and as professionals working with families need to be aware of to be able to support them the best we can.

The message we want all parents to know is you are not alone, everyone struggles with parenting from time to time, support is available and it’s ok to reach out for help no matter what issue it is you may be facing.

Find out more about Parenting NI services:

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