Tag Archives: Digital Education

Parenting in the digital age – what age should children have a smartphone?

In this second post of the series on ‘Parenting in the digital age’, Dr. Jane O’Connor continues  to explore the relationship between children’s rights and digital technology.  

Young people and mobile phones

I recently had the following conversation with my soon to be 7 year old son that I think will sound familiar to many parents with children of a similar age:
‘Mum can I have a smartphone for my birthday?’
‘No’
‘Why not?’
‘Because you’re too young.’
‘When can I have one?’
‘When you’re older,’
‘How old?’
‘Oh I don’t know, twelve, maybe ten.’
‘That’s ages away.’
‘Well you are not allowed to have one until you are ten…it’s the law.’

It isn’t the law of course, but I’m beginning to wish it was.

Limiting our children’s access to digital technology is beginning to feel more and more akin to King Canute trying desperately to hold back the waves, and the ubiquitous presence of smartphones in ever younger hands makes it increasingly difficult to justify resisting the trend. On average, children are getting their first smartphones around age 10, according to the research firm Influence Central, down from age 12 in 2012. According to a recent survey of parents by Internet Matters the vast majority of children aged 8 to 11 in Britain now own a smartphone, with Newcastle and Nottingham having the very highest rates of ownership in this age group at 90.5% and 90% respectively. Many schools now ban smartphones from lessons and playgrounds, but the issue is still a pertinent one for parents to navigate, weighing up the pros and cons of the peace of mind of being able to be in constant contact with their children, with the attention grabbing and potentially disturbing diversions of the phone. The following quote from the US based Common Sense media website summarises why the decision to give your child a phone is not to be taken lightly and deserves careful thought:

when you hand your children cell phones, you’re giving them powerful communication and media-production tools. They can create text, images, and videos that can be widely distributed and uploaded to websites instantly. Parents really need to consider whether their kids are ready to use their phones responsibly and respectfully’.

Perhaps it is not about the age of the child after all, but about the kind of child they are and how they want to use their phone? I know my son just wants to play games on it, and so feel no compunction about delaying the acquisition of yet another screen based distraction, but clearly ownership is becoming the norm for children not much older than he is now. As well as protecting children, as parents we also surely have a responsibility to try and ensure that our children are not left out and are socially included. Furthermore, is it not hypocritical in the extreme for adults to use smartphones for ever increasing amounts of time and reasons and yet not want children to emulate that behaviour?

The historian and mythographer Marina Warner takes a broader view of the futility of trying to keep childhood and adulthood separate by restricting children’s access to the adult world. In her essay ‘Little angels little devils: keeping childhood innocent’ she argues that:

Children aren’t separate from adults…they can’t live innocent lives on behalf of adults…Children are our copy in little…in affluent cities of the West, they’ll wail for expensive trainers with the right label like their friends.'(1994: p48)

And today, clearly, they’ll wail for their own smartphones.

This desire to hold on to childhood innocence seems to be at the heart of parental concerns around children owing smartphones, but is that innocence, as Warner claims, simply a myth?

Young person and mobile phone

Related links and publications
https://www.commonsensemedia.org
http://influence-central.com/
https://www.internetmatters.org/
Warner, M (1994) Managing monsters – The Reith Lectures. London: Vintage.

Jane O’Connor

Dr Jane O’Connor is a Reader in Childhood Studies at Birmingham City University and is currently leading ‘Technobabies’, an international research project exploring parents’ perspectives on the use of touchscreen digital devices by 0-3 year olds. Jane started her professional life as a primary school teacher and moved into research due to her interests in constructions of childhood and children’s relationship with the media. Jane’s research interests include children and technology and children and celebrity.

Parenting in the Digital Age – young children’s rights and digital technology

Dr Jane O’Connor is a Reader in Childhood Studies at Birmingham City University and is currently leading ‘Technobabies’, an international research project exploring parents’ perspectives on the use of touchscreen digital devices by 0-3 year olds. In this post she explores the relationship between young children’s rights and digital technology. 

JOC 1My research into the use of mobile digital devices, such as iPads, by children under three has focused on the perspectives of parents and other care givers both in the UK and in a range of other countries including Sweden, Greece and Australia. Cultural differences aside, what has come across most strongly in the findings has been the sense of parental confusion and anxiety around whether or not their babies and toddlers should be allowed to use such devices, for how long and what the most appropriate apps may be. All of these decisions have to be made by families on a daily basis with, as yet, little research evidence from trustworthy sources to guide them. As one parent in Greece put it:

‘We just want to know if children win or lose from using iPads’.

Unfortunately, even with growing numbers of researchers working in the area, the definitive answer to that question is a long way off and the reality is much more nuanced than the question might suggest. The multiple potential benefits and drawbacks of allowing 0-3s to use digital devices continue to be debated, although the general consensus among both parents and professionals seems to be that moderation and supervision are the keys to safely incorporating such technology into very young lives.

However, what has been missing from much research in the area so far, including my own, is a consideration of the issue of children’s rights. We need to think about the extent to which we can say that children, even the very youngest children, have a right to use digital technology and how this might, or indeed should, influence parental decisions in relation to access to mobile devices. When we consider the charter of children’s rights drawn up by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), it seems that preventing usage could be perceived as an infringement of some rights, but an upholding of others. Andy Phippen, Professor of Children and Technology at Plymouth University recently outlined some of the ways in which this could relate to very young children’s technology usage. For example, he suggests that removing all possible ‘risk’ to the child by not allowing them to use digital technology could be interpreted as infringing Article 12 (Respect for the views of the child), Article 17 (Access to information; mass media) and Article 28 (Right to education), whereas the use of mobile devices for ‘digital pacification’ purposes could be seen as infringing on Article 3 (Best interests of the child) and Article 12 (Respect for the views of the child).

JOC 2In this context, the questions parents need answers to become even more complex. As well as worrying about whether using digital technology will support baby’s learning or damage their eyes they also need to ask ‘Does allowing my child to use an iPad infringe on their rights or support them?’

Related publications

O’Connor, J. and Fotakopoulou, O. (2016) A threat to early childhood innocence or the future of learning? Parents’ perspectives on the use of touchscreen technology by 0–3 year olds in the UK. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 17(2).

O’Connor, J. (2017)Appropriate play? Parents’ reflections on 0-3s using touchscreen technology in the home’. In Arnott, L. (2017) Digital Technologies and Learning in the Early Years. London: SAGE.

O’Connor, J., Fotakopolou, O., Hatzigianni, M and Fridberg, M. (2018) ‘Parents’ perspectives on the use of touchscreen technology by 0-3 year olds in the UK, Greece, Sweden and Australia’. In Palaiologou, I. (Ed) (2018 forthcoming) Digital Practices in Early Childhood Education: An International Perspective. London: SAGE.