KIRSTIE ALLSOPP: It's shocking that a third of all children under six have a mobile phone

KIRSTIE ALLSOPP: It's shocking that a third of all children under six have a mobile phone

It’s shocking that a third of all children under six have a mobile phone… We parents must protect them from Big Tech, writes KIRSTIE ALLSOPP

Four years ago I smashed my children’s iPads.

It had been such beautiful weather in Devon and I’d told the boys, then aged nine and 11, to get their wetsuits so we could head to the beach. But, glued to their screens, they’d ignored me.

When I tried again, 20 minutes later, they were still on those flaming devices, and again, another 20 minutes later, they were still on them. So I grabbed one and knocked it against a coffee table, thinking how much I hated them.

The screen went ‘pop’. Oh God, I thought, I can’t smash one and not the other. So that’s what I did.

There were terrible tears. ‘Mum, how could you have done this?’ they wailed. It was, without doubt, one of my worst parenting moments.

By the age of six, one third of children in the UK own a mobile. It’s 90 per cent by the time they hit 11, and by 15 almost every teenager has one, according to figures released by media regulator Ofcom last week. (Picture posed by models)

But what ensued was one of those summers from heaven. We hung out together, spending days on the beach, playing chess and Monopoly in the evenings. I can’t believe it happened, but it did.

So when figures were released by media regulator Ofcom last week revealing the extent to which even very young children have mobile phones of their own, it hit a nerve. The report is truly disturbing.

By the age of six, it said, one third of children in the UK own a mobile. It’s 90 per cent by the time they hit 11, and by 15 almost every teenager has one.

The BBC’s economics editor, Faisal Islam, described the statistics as ‘incredible’ in a social media post, adding: ‘Would be interested to know what it’s like for those who hold out against it.’

Well, as a parent who refused to cave in to my kids’ demands for phones until my eldest turned 13, I can tell him – it’s very hard.

I have huge sympathy for every parent waging a war against smartphones. I think the idea of giving one of these things to a child (and, personally, I think ten is the very minimum age) is preposterous.

In a nutshell, we’re handing our children over to Big Tech.

Children are exposed not just to harmful content, such as pornography, but to social pressures of the kind that were unimaginable when we were young. 

For parents, meanwhile, there is of course the temptation to track their child’s every move, adding to what becomes a burgeoning climate of fear (also unimaginable for those of us whose childhoods were more free-range).

Kirstie Allsopp (above): I have huge sympathy for every parent waging a war against smartphones. I think the idea of giving one of these things to a child (and, personally, I think ten is the very minimum age) is preposterous

Kirstie Allsopp (above): I have huge sympathy for every parent waging a war against smartphones. I think the idea of giving one of these things to a child (and, personally, I think ten is the very minimum age) is preposterous

There’s huge pressure, too, to cave in to the demands of a hormonal pre-teen.

In my house, it started when my eldest, Bay, was 11. ‘When am I getting a smartphone?’ he’d demand.

Later, as I held firm, it became: ‘Everyone in my class has one except me!’

That was close to being true. By the time he was in Year 8 there were only three children without a phone, and he was one of them.

Then I discussed the issue with another mother who also has boys, slightly older than mine. 

Her advice was to hold out until they were 13, and just about to go to senior school. 

They could then have a mobile phone in order to store all their old friends’ numbers. It would help them to stay in touch. So that’s what I did.

My second son, Oscar, then 11, got one at the same time. (Bay said, charitably, this was fair enough.)

But there are strict rules attached. The boys know those phones belong to me and that they use them with my permission. It’s a privilege.

Mobile phones will tell you where your children are, not who they're with or what they're doing. It's a completely false sense of security. (File image)

Mobile phones will tell you where your children are, not who they’re with or what they’re doing. It’s a completely false sense of security. (File image)

They have to be handed over in the evenings and left to charge in the kitchen. The phones aren’t allowed in their bedrooms with the door closed. 

We have phone-free days. I know their access codes and can pick them up at any point and look at what they’ve been doing.

I don’t invade their privacy – but I know I can if they start to worry me. And, importantly, they know I can. That, for me, is essential.

I’m always amazed at the number of parents who don’t police their use, or check on who their children are talking to. 

Instead, parents use it to their advantage – they suppose – by harnessing the smartphone technology to track their children. But what has made us think that sleuthing after our own children is a good idea?

When we were children, my brother and I would take a honey sandwich and a bottle filled with orange squash and disappear on our bicycles all day. It would never have occurred to my mother to need to know where we were at every moment.

Of course, times have changed. But what is the greater danger – something hypothetical happening to your child outside the home, or the well-established risks to children from having constant access to the internet, Big Tech firms and screen time?

Mobile phones will tell you where your children are, not who they’re with or what they’re doing. It’s a completely false sense of security.

The greater danger to my children comes from spending too much time inside, scrolling on their phones. 

There’s that constant sense of FOMO – fear of missing out – that comes with being updated all the time about what their friends are up to without them.

There are always people on better holidays, with better clothes. They’re exposed to filters on social media channels that alter the way they think they’re supposed to look.

Then there are the algorithms. In my case, I’m bombarded with emotional overload. 

I’m constantly offered videos of fathers returning home from the Army or deaf babies hearing for the first time. 

I get pictures of what the Duchess of Cambridge is wearing and chopped salad recipes, because that’s what I’m interested in and tend to share with others.

For kids, if a sexist joke or silly stereotype makes them laugh and they share it, they’ll be sent 20 more poor-taste memes. It reinforces and refines what they can see, and therefore what they believe.

I do my best. I don’t let my children have notifications or alerts switched on, so their phones don’t ring or rattle every single time a new message arrives on social media sites such as TikTok, Instagram and Facebook.

And the phones aren’t wholly bad. The boys get a lot of news on them, which means they’re well-informed on current affairs. 

Smartphones allow them access to a world of films and music, and it’s a genuine pleasure watching their enthusiasm as they discover new things.

But today, when I ask them whether I was right to wait before handing out the mobiles, they agree wholeheartedly.

We talk about the dangers we all face online and they understand why the boundaries are there.

My children know that I trust them – but also that I’ll look after them. And that’s why it’s worth holding out for a while, however much they complain.

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Kirstie Allsopp

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