How to protect children online as a quarter of 5-7 year olds have a phone

Child using a mobile phone. (Getty Images)
A quarter of 5-7 year-olds have a mobile phone, new research from Ofcom has revealed. (Getty Images)

Smartphone use among children has hit an all-time high among, with nearly a quarter of UK five to seven-year-olds now owning a smartphone.

Ofcom's annual study of children’s relationships with the media and online worlds also showed that social media use rose in this age group last year. Nearly two in five use messaging service WhatsApp despite its minimum age of 13.

The report also revealed the number of children aged between five and seven who go online to send messages or make voice and video calls had risen 6% on last year to 65%, while half now watch live-streamed content, up from 39%.

While 42% of parents said they used social media with their child, 32% said their child used social media independently.

But an additional, concerning, report, from the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), found that children as young as three are being manipulated into acts of sexual abuse, with the images and videos now being found on the open internet.

Toddler girl using a smartphone sat at the kitchen table.
A further report has suggested children as young as three are at risk of online harm. (Getty Images)

In the Ofcom study, the number of parents of younger children who said they were more likely to allow their child to have a social media profile before they reached the minimum age required has also risen from 25% to 30%.

"While parental concerns in some areas have increased considerably, their enforcement of rules appears to be diminishing, in part perhaps because of resignation about their ability to intervene in their children’s online lives,” the report states.

It adds that while parents, in general, still feel there are positives to their children being online, concerns around some aspects of it remain.

Secretary of State for science, technology and innovation Michelle Donelan adds: “Children as young as five should not be accessing social media and these stark findings show why our Online Safety Act is essential.

“Most platforms say they do not allow under-13s onto their sites and the Act will ensure companies enforce these limits or they could face massive fines. If they fail to comply with Ofcom decisions and keep children safe their bosses could face prison.

"Protecting children online is our number one priority and we will not hesitate to build on the Act to keep them safe."

Child lying on a sofa using a mobile phone. (Getty Images)
Parents are concerned about the risks of children's mobile phone usage. (Getty Images)

Risks of young children being online

Psychologist, Dr Rachael Molitor, says that despite some plus points to children being so online literate there are also some associated risks that parents and carers need to be aware of.

“The recent Ofcom survey highlighting that a significant portion of 5-7-year-olds now own mobile phones is a trend that warrants attention," she explains. "While these devices offer undeniable benefits, it's crucial to acknowledge there might be some health risks associated with such early exposure."

Due to the nature of the changing world, Dr Molitor says it is inevitable that technology is used in our future of communication, and children learning such technology skills at a younger age can have a benefit to their development.

"However where the pros may be there to support education, facilitate communication and accessibility to technology learning and development, the challenges with giving children such freedom within technology can be a concern," she adds.

Dr Molitor says the use of technology in young children can adapt the way we learn and store information.

"Research suggests that children are beginning to learn 'search over store' information, so the use of technology may impact such information storage for educational purposes," she explains.

It's little surprise, therefore, that the growing trend of mobile phone use among very young children has experts urging caution.

"But understanding the potential risks can help parents make informed decisions about screen time and mobile phone use for their children," Dr Molitor adds.

Here's a breakdown of some of the potential risks:

  • Cognitive development: Excessive screen time can hinder attention span and focus, crucial skills for learning and development in young children.

  • Hyperstimulation: The rapid pace of visuals and sounds on mobile phones can overstimulate young minds, impacting their ability to regulate emotions and engage in quieter activities.

  • Cyberbullying and communication development: Social interaction with friends and family can be affect my the communication via technology, messaging over human interaction. Also challenges of keyboard warriors and cyberbullying can impact a child’s self esteem, confidence and health wellbeing.

  • Sleep disruption: The blue light emitted by mobile phone screens can interfere with sleep. This can lead to difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, impacting overall well-being.

  • Social development: Over use and reliance on mobile phones can limit opportunities for crucial social interaction and play, hindering a child's ability to develop social skills and emotional intelligence.

Group of children  sing their mobile phones. (Getty Images)
Experts have highlighting concerns about the mobile phone usage of children. (Getty Images)

How to reduce the screen time risks

Introduce boundaries

Dr Alison McClymont previously advised Yahoo UK that screen time should not be a constant. "We should be limiting screen time to set periods of the day, or as a reward," she advises.

Build more balanced play

Dr Amanda Gummer, child psychologist and founder of the Good Play Guide previously outlined the importance of finding balance in children's activities. "A balanced play diet is as important to children’s social and emotional wellbeing as a good nutritional diet is to their physical health," she explains.

"Children need plenty of social, active, imaginative, free play and this is not often facilitated through screen-based activities.”

Find an alternative activity

As opposed to offering screen time, Dr McClymont suggests offering an alternative activity to do together, or asking children to suggest one. "Start a conversation about a topic you know they like - it can even be the choice of TV programme/game! Ask for help with a chore and say that screen time can happen afterwards," she says.

Lead by example

Experts believe parents need to set an example of healthy tech use so children understand the importance of screen-free time.

Try tech-free tools

If you are struggling to enforce screen-free time, there are some inventions to help including Tech-Break, which has been specially designed to reduce the time families collectively spend on their devices.

Additional reporting PA.

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Watch: New guidance for schools on mobile phone use