child with a smartphone

At what age should a child have a smartphone?

As the head of an international school, with children from three years upwards, one of the most frequently asked questions or concerns of parents is at what age should a child have a smartphone!

We are an Apple iPad School which wholeheartedly embraces the positivity of modern technology. Yet, come and visit at break or lunch times, and mobile phones are not allowed in school. Smart technology is strictly utilised for the enhancement of lessons and learning. Breaks are for human interaction, developing friendships, play and the benefits of unlimited exercise. Our students respect the rules and enjoy happy and healthy lives.

However, they do, of course, have mobile phones at home. I believe that it is imperative as a school that all of our ICT lessons include safety guidelines with regard to smartphones and their usage.

This week, in the United Kingdom, the director of Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, has declared that he is uncomfortable with Primary schoolchildren owning smartphones and having unlimited access to the internet.

In a recent UK national survey, it is reported that 61% of children in the United Kingdom own a smartphone prior to Year 6 – the last year of Primary School.

Yes, we can all agree that technology has evolved dramatically and using the internet and accessing the internet is now extremely easy. However, it is only with the advancement of smartphones that it became at the touch of your fingertips. It seems that out of eight billion people in the world, over six billion own a smartphone and all that access entails!

Personally, I found it fascinating and of great irony to learn that Microsoft Founder, Bill Gates, categorically has stated that none of his children had access to or would ever have access to a smartphone until they were at least 14 years old!

Is that because it’s not about the owning of the phone, rather the implications of all that it can access, both positive and, at times, extremely negative, or indeed, the impact of screentime on developing brains?

Research is constantly being carried out worldwide concerning the impact of screentime on children. Toddlers as young as two years of age have been found using screens for in excess of three hours a day and links have been made to concerns for their brain development.

Of course, there are advantages to using a smartphone and children who use them:

  • Have greater developed digital skills.
  • Are able to explore subjects in more depth using internet-based research.
  • Can independently look up health questions and concerns.
  • Communicate with parents regularly.
  • Feel safer when away from their home as they have a contact device with them, i.e., smartphone.
  • Are up to date with the technological world and its rapid developments.

Disadvantages are:

  • Extended periods of time on a screen can adversely affect brain development.
  • Using phones during the school day affects the ability to make friendships, converse, engage and discuss.
  • Isolation from family, friends, and peers due to screentime usage.
  • Children can be exposed to inappropriate content.
  • Online bullying.
  • Unrestricted access to the media, internet and exposure to unfiltered content.

It is not an easy decision for parents to make. However, young children are not able to make informed decisions themselves and self-regulate. As parents, we must make informed decisions in the best interests of our children.

Giving in to your child, due to peer pressure, and allowing access to a phone at an age when you do not think that they are old enough to self-regulate their usage is clearly inappropriate. After all, as smartphone-using adults, we know what we can access at the touch of our smartphone screens.

As with all aspects of navigating life, it is important not to be influenced by generalisations. It is far more important to consider your own child and family demographic. If you feel that your child has the maturity to be allowed access to a smartphone and all that that entails, it is a personal decision for you to make.

I know of divorced parents who have allowed their children smartphones at a much younger age than normal in order to maintain positive relationships and close contact with their children. On the other hand, I have parents who have said that they don’t feel that their child is old enough to cope with all that a smartphone entails, even at 14 years of age.

I do know one thing. At whatever age a child or teenager receives a smartphone, it requires due diligence on the part of the provider to ensure that it is being used in a safe and appropriate way, and that screentime is closely monitored. Giving a phone to a child of any age has far reaching implications and one that we must be prepared to self-regulate in order to ensure positive and safe usage for all.

 “Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born in another time” – Chinese Proverb

By Penelope Best, Head of School,
Eupheus International School, Loulé