Should You Feel Guilty About Your Child Using a Smartphone or Tablet?
The UK company Sitters have conducted a large nationwide survey of parents with children aged between 2 and 10 years old to find out the truth about smart device usage, its effects and the guilt that parents feel. The results are in and they are both surprising and affirming.
Throw away the preconceptions about smart device use by young children. Most surveys look specifically at screen time and its detrimental impact on children. Often the focus then shifts to social media use in adolescence. This survey looks specifically at younger children and their use of smartphones and tablets.
According to our survey, a staggering 70% of parents think that the content on a tablet or smartphone is addictive for their children. However, our research also shows that over 76% of parents are allowing their children, aged 2-10 years, to use them.
Despite the positives the parents believe a tablet or smartphone can bring to their child’s wellbeing, over half of the parents on the survey are feeling guilty for allowing the child to use the device.
We believe you shouldn’t feel guilty about smart devise usage, but there are ways to mitigate both the guilt parents feel, and the negative impact that the digital age is having on this generation of children.
- 53% of parents feel guilty about their child’s smart device usage.
- 70% of parents believe they are addictive.
- London parents are least likely to allow their children to use smart devices. Approximately 80% of all other parents allow their children to use smart devices.
- 66% of children spend less than 60 minutes a day on a smart device.
- 93% of parents monitor what their kids are up to on the device.
The Sitters Survey
There are many articles and surveys on children’s usage of social media, and even which type of smart device is the ‘best’, but they don’t often answer the questions parents ask themselves, such as:
- When should a child first access a smartphone or tablet?
- How long do other children use a tablet or smartphone for?
- Why do they use them?
- Do other parents feel guilty?
- What can we do about the guilt?
The results clearly show that you are not alone in letting your child use a tablet or smartphone. In fact, out of the 76% of parents in the UK allow their children to use a tablet or smartphone, 67% of children have their own device. Even the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge use screen time!
Our survey targeted parents across the nation with children aged between 2 and 10 years old. For the purposes of discussion the term ‘smart device’ will be used to cover smartphones and tablets. The term ‘children’ or ‘child’ refers to the age group surveyed. Of the parents surveyed, over 76% allow they child to use a smart device.
The Guilt Factor
Our survey has demonstrated that parents fall in to two camps with regards to guilt about their child’s smart device usage. 53% feel guilty and 47% don’t.
The survey helps paint a clearer picture here. Partly this is because the positive factors of using a smart device outweigh the negatives. With careful controls and monitoring in place, smart devices are therefore viewed as a positive addition to a child’s life.
In fact, a sizeable 48% of those surveyed think that using a tablet or smartphone has actually helped their child’s development. A further 37% don’t feel that it has had a positive or negative effect.
Furthermore, the majority of parents find it easy to enforce time limits and to take the tablet away from their child when their time is up. However, we’re not minimising the difficulty faced by the 25% of parents who do find it somewhat difficult.
The National Picture
Interestingly, our survey revealed some unexpected differences in attitudes concerning smart devices across the nation. London parents are the least likely to allow their children to use smart devices (41%).
London parents stand out from the rest of the country in this regard and skew the data in terms of the ‘norm’ across the nation. Typically, most other regions see in excess of 80% of parents permitting smart device usage. Those in some areas have hugely different attitudes to London parents. 96% of parents in Northern Ireland, 94% of parents in the North East, and 88% of parents in East Midlands allow their children to use a smart device.
So WHY is London different: There is no supporting data to allow us to truly determine why there is such a marked difference. We can presume that various factors come in to play.
The Modern Families Index 2017 offers some pointers here:
- Household incomes in London are higher with work afforded a higher priority for parents compared to elsewhere.
- Parents in London have greater flexible working arrangements compared to elsewhere, yet feel work impacts negatively on time spent with their children more.
Fundamentally there are differences in the way family life is structured. This may impact attitudes concerning smart device usage both in the home and in childcare settings.
The Gender Picture
The good news is that there is little difference between boys and girls when it comes to parent’s attitudes. Boys do tend to use a device slightly more, on average, than girls. This is 61 minutes per day on average for boys compared to 56 minutes on average for girls, so not significantly different.
Genders use their devices differently and parents feel different levels of guilt according to the gender of their child. Girls are most likely to use their smart device to watch videos. Boys are more likely to play games.
Interestingly, despite the time spent on devices being broadly similar, and in fact slightly less for girls, the parents of girls feel slightly guiltier about their child using smart devices.
The Age Picture
Most children (44%) will have first started to use a smart device by the age of 3.
The average age for a child first being allowed to use a smart device directly correlates to the age of the parent: the younger the parent, the younger they allow their child to use a smart device.
Parents aged 18-24 years old on average allow their child to start using a smart device at age 1 ¾ years whereas parents aged over 55 years don’t allow first use until age 6.5 years.
We see broadly the same correlation between the age of the parent and the age of the child for the amount of time children spent on a smart device daily. Younger parents allow their children to spend longer on their devices compared to older parents.
Drilling Down into the Facts and Stats
What are they using their smart device for?
There are three main contenders when it comes to what’s going on when your child is on their smart device:
- Watching videos (40%)
- Games (34%)
- Educational apps (17%)
How much time do kids spend in their smart device?
On average per day, over 66% of children spend under 60 minutes a day on their smart device. Only 26% of children spend 1-2 hours a day on a tablet.
Here is our first clue as to how to reduce some of the guilt parents feel.
A typical child’s day will be made up of childcare or school, activities, family time and more. An average 5 year old is awake for 13 hours out of every 24. This means that the amount of time spent on a smart device is a small proportion of their total waking hours.
Furthermore, smart devices are often used at times which do not detract from other pursuits. For example, a child may use a smart device on a car journey, or whilst waiting whilst a sibling does an activity.
When do kids use their smart device?
We see a spike in children’s usage of smart devices after school hours. The most common time that kids are on their smart devices is:
- after school but before dinner (41%) closely followed by after dinner but before bed (39%).
This makes sense. Parents are typically faced with these two points of the day as:
- needing a chance for kids to wind down
- when they have pressures on their own time
Smart devices are therefore likely used to make these periods easier to manage.
Our survey reveals devices are sometimes being used right up to bedtime (46%). Although the research here is somewhat vague, and the term ‘sometimes’ is open to interpretation, studies do consistently show that screen time negatively impacts on the quality and duration of sleep in children.
And this is particularly important in terms of when screen time is allowed.
Being allowed screen time in the time immediately prior to bedtime has three main negative effects:
- It displaces wind-down time meaning it takes longer for a child to fall asleep, meaning they get less sleep overall.
- The light emitted from screens is believed to be a cause of poorer sleep in children, increasing alertness and disrupting the body’s circadian rhythms by suppressing the hormone melatonin, crucial for regulating a child’s sleep.
- The content of what is being engaged with on the smart device can stimulate a child’s alertness releasing adrenaline and making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Much of the research looks at the impact of screen time on adults’ sleep. However we should also pay particular attention to the impact on children. We believe that reducing or eliminating screen time in the run up to bedtime could help improve the quality and quantity of your child’s sleep. This in turn will ensure they have the focus and attention required for the next day.
How do parents monitor their children’s smartphone or tablet use?
The overwhelming majority of parents (93%) monitor their child’s use of the smart device. This should help to alleviate the guilt parents feel.
How they monitor varies a little by age. Fundamentally there are two main options: go through content of the device without your child, or go through it with your child.
Parents of younger children are the ones completely in control of what the child may access. Therefore, fewer parents of younger children (35% of 2-3 year olds) go through the device’s content without their child, compared to the parents of older children (55% of 8-10 year olds). Older children are more likely to be independently navigating the device with less supervision so parents are more likely to conduct monitoring without the child present.
Nonetheless, for children over the age of 4 at least 60% have their device content monitored whilst they are present. Actively engaging children in this process is excellent practice as it opens up discussion regarding what your child is seeing, doing and engaging with.
17% of parents we surveyed use software and apps to monitor the content their child engages with and views on their smart device. Many devices themselves also often contain parental control settings.
What is great about kids being able to use smart devices?
There’s a temptation to think doom and gloom when it comes to assessing screen time. However, smart devices bring immense wide-reaching benefits. Check out our word cloud and you’ll see that education and learning stand out as hugely important.
This generation of kids have another weapon in the educational toolkit: the internet and their smart device.
What’s not great about kids using smart devices?
Again take a look at our word cloud using the survey responses:
The word cloud gives us a real snap shot of what parents are worried about. Now we can see why parents are likely to feel a hefty dose of guilt. There are five primary concerns:
- They are addictive.
- They can damage eyesight and wider health.
- Children are exposed to inappropriate content, including dangers such as bullying and grooming.
- They allow too much screen time which reduces physical activity, and parents feel it may limit their child’s imagination and negatively affect attention.
- It is anti-social.
Let’s look at these a little more closely.
1. Are smart devices addictive?
Parents are right to be concerned. Numerous studies have demonstrated the addictive nature of smartphones and tablets. This is now being backed up by individuals who’ve created the ‘addictive features’ now coming out to explain the problem.
In fact, smart device usage actually changes the brain chemistry. More recently, a small study has correlated the rise in ‘media screen activities’ with the rise in depression and suicides in teens.
We explain more about what you can do about this in our Hints and Tips section.
2. Can screen time damage children’s eyesight and wider health?
There is no evidence that screen time causes long-term or permanent damage to the eyes. However, it can cause short-term problems, most notably eyestrain.
Eyestrain is effectively a repetitive strain injury (RSI) of the eye. Additionally, whilst children’s eyes do absorb more blue light (which is emitted from screens), eyestrain is most likely caused by the conditions around the screen rather than the screen itself.
We give more information in the Hints and Tips section about how to ensure your child uses their smart device appropriately to look after their eyes.
3. The risks of inappropriate content and communications:
The risks of exposure to inappropriate content and communications are understandable, but, largely controllable in children of primary school age.
By not allowing them on age-inappropriate social media apps they should not be at risk of cyber-bullying or grooming. Do check that the games that they play are appropriate for their age and don’t involve ‘live chat’ interaction with players they do not know in real life.
Furthermore it is advisable to download (and watch) the videos your child wishes to watch rather than let them view via instant streaming, especially on platforms such as YouTube. A danger is that when a child uses instant streaming they are linked to content you would not like them to see.
The NSPCC offers excellent resources equipping parents with the tools they need to keep their children safe online.
4. Is too much screen time a bad thing?
The important thing here is balance. Unicef have reviewed the literature in their document ‘How does the time children spend using digital technology impact their mental well-being, social relationships and physical activity?’ In short, some use of digital technology is actually a good thing. The problem is when it’s used too much.
Some studies, according to the Unicef report, show that increased screen time is associated with some negative health indicators such as physical health and less healthy diets. The parents on our survey are also agreeing with these negatives points raised.
However, it’s worth noting that these effects are mostly reported to be small and no different to other sedentary activities.
5. Are smart devices causing anti-social behaviour in children?
Parents in our survey are concerned that smart device usage makes their children disengage from family life and the outside world.
Again, if we look at the Unicef report above again, typically it is thought that smart device activity is used as a replacement for real social interaction. It also enables isolation to be more readily accepted for children who already struggle socially.
However, the Unicef report finds that as children head into adolescence, there are times that digital technology actively helps those struggling socially.
Why Parents Allow Kids to Use Smart Devices
Parents give a myriad of reasons for allowing their child to use a smart device. However, some really stand out.
There are five reasons that really stand out from the survey:
- They provide entertainment.
- They are educational, and help with homework.
- They are used as treats and rewards.
- It’s an easy low-parental-intensity activity to keep the child occupied.
- In the modern world, children need to be tech savvy.
We absolutely believe that childhood should largely be about fun and enjoyment so it makes sense that parents are keen to allow their children to use smart devices for this purpose.
Games and videos are obviously a main source of this. Therefore many parents will link the allowance of smart device use to rewards for good behaviour.
Whatever area of development you’re striving to help your child with you can almost certainly find an educational app to help. Furthermore, this generation of children need to be able to use technology adeptly throughout their future study and work life.
Perhaps the real clue as to why the majority of parents feel guilty about smart device usage is point 4 above. There’s no doubting that letting a child play games, watch videos, or even play on educational apps, will buy you quiet time to do things or relax. Parents need time for this.
Modern parents are no strangers to guilt. There are never enough hours in the day to feel that your children, your work, your home, and other ‘life’ demands are getting the attention they need. With limited options for sharing out the finite resources of time and energy, the result is parental guilt.
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