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.
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?’
‘Because you’re too young.’
‘When can I have one?’
‘When you’re older,’
‘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?
Related links and publications
Warner, M (1994) Managing monsters – The Reith Lectures. London: Vintage.
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.