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Is your child ready for a smartphone?

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a precise age, backed by rigorous science, at which every child was confirmed as being sufficiently wise enough to handle unsupervised access to the internet and sufficiently mature and confident enough to withstand the influence of social media?

Well, there isn’t, and it’s probably not worth holding our breath for it either.

All we have, currently, is the age at which most kids get a smartphone – so nearly half of all 9 year olds, and over 90% of all 11 year olds – which makes it feel very, very normal.

But is the fact that other children of a similar age have been given a smartphone a good reason for you to give your child a smartphone? How many times have you said “just because everyone else is doing it, or has it, doesn’t make it a good idea” to your kids?!

Similarly, giving our children smartphones certainly makes our lives easier, at least on some levels. It means we can track them, we feel reassured they can always get in touch with us, and it’s a sure-fire way to keep them quiet when we need a little time and space. But does that mean it’s the ‘right’ time or a ‘good’ thing?

And although we hear more and more from various celebrities and experts, from Kate Winslet, Madonna and Cristiano Ronaldo, to Bill Gates, the head of Samsung, the Surgeon General, the Vice Chairman of the Royal College of Psychologists, and The Children’s Commissioner, urging us to delay giving children smartphones, even confiding they wished they had waited until their children were older, we don’t hear much about how you make the decision for your child, and how you resist the urge to join in with the crowd and hand them down your latest i-phone.

“I think parents should think long and hard about monitored access to social media or actually access to social media at all. I honestly think that we will look back in 20 years' time and be absolutely horrified by what we allowed our children to be exposed to.”
Dame Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner

So we thought we would have a go at answering the question we all want to know – when is the right time to give my child a smartphone?

Let’s go back to the research. The problem with current research is that there’s not much of it – in scope or length – because smartphone usage by children is a relatively new phenomenon. Not only that, most of the research is focussed on the impact of social media and adolescents, rather than younger children. And the findings are pretty inconclusive – for example, is the dip in teenage wellbeing caused by increased social media use, or is the increase in social media use by teens having a negative effect on their wellbeing? It’s a real chicken and egg story….

“The only person who really can judge how social media affects children is often the one closest to them.” 

Amy Orben, University of Cambridge

There are a couple of clear and consistent messages from the research:

  • Children under 8 have little, if any, capacity to recognise or understand online risk
  • Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to social media use due to their deep need to turn towards and be accepted by their peers

Oh, and guess what else? The way parents use their smartphones and social media is the predominant pattern that their children follow. We go into that in more detail in our Parenting in the Digital World Workshop!

So it’s complicated, and maybe that tells us we’re asking the wrong question when we focus on the age of our child. Maybe we should be thinking about each child as an individual. After all, we all know that there can be remarkable differences between children of the same age depending on hundreds of other factors. Many experts are now thinking it's less about age, and more about the individual child.

“I tell parents that it’s not so much about a particular age as it is about a kid’s social awareness and understanding of what the technology means.”
Dr Jerry Bubrick, Child Mind Institute
  • If not date of birth, then what might you want to consider before giving your child their first smartphone?
  • Will they be happy for you to oversee their use and know their passwords?
  • Will they be able to log off without major tantrums?
  • Will they be able to recognise when something isn’t right?
  • Will they be able to take care of their phone?
  • How impulsive are they when playing games?
  • How socially aware are they in terms of sending or posting messages that may be misinterpreted by others?
  • Will they be able to manage large group chats where messages can be misconstrued with no body language or facial expression?
  • Is their self-esteem strong enough to withstand social comparison?
  • How well is your child able to stick to the rules and limits you set?

If your answers are causing you to think a bit, that’s good because our answers guide us towards solutions. Maybe you’ve identified something that your child needs to learn or improve before you hand over that shiny box ….

And although the demands to have a smartphone feel incessant and even overwhelming, it’s worth holding out – offering empathy whilst staying firm – and waiting even just a few months, to help your child develop a little more maturity and self-discipline they need.

“Every six months your child gains a massive amount of maturity, psychologically speaking, to be able to deal with stuff”
Annabel Turner, Director of Cybersafe Scotland