Leslie HaddonLSE’s Leslie Haddon looks at the findings from the final Net Children Go Mobile report, noting that some of the hype and panic about kids’ constant connectivity through mobile devices might be unwarranted. 

Children’s increasing access to smartphones at ever younger ages is generating speculation about what this constant connectivity means for a new generation. However, concerns about its implications prompted the European Commission’s Better Internet for Kids Programme to fund the Net Children Go Mobile project to research potential new online risks arising from this portable access to the digital world.  This project involved both a survey  of 3,500 children who use the internet and their parents, and a nine-country qualitative study (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Portugal Romania, Spain and the UK) involving 107 in-depth interviews and 55 focus groups with children. The qualitative research questions assumptions about perpetual access: basically, children experience significant social constraints as regards what they can do with their smartphones, more so younger children.

In 2013, the 5-country survey conducted for Net Children Go Mobile had indicated that 30% of boys and 32% of girls aged 9-12 owned a smartphone. The follow up qualitative phase of the project revealed that in practice, many children gain some access to and experience of smartphones before they own them, using parents’ devices. This means more encounter these devices at an earlier age than is suggested by those ownership statistics. However, in practice such access is often limited, with the devices mainly being used for games.

There is peer pressure, especially amongst secondary school age children, to have smartphones, partly as the latest fashionable item. That said, sometimes smartphones are unexpected and even unrequested gifts, and not only parents, but children themselves, can be critical about whether they need them as opposed to a traditional mobile phone.  It appears more usual for parents to discuss the age at which children should have smartphones, often referring to when the children are ‘mature’ enough, especially for such an expensive gift.  Smartphones are sometimes bought as a rite of passage, marking a new stage in children’s lives, like going to secondary school or for religious events, such as Confirmation.  But when the smartphone is a reward for some achievement or good behaviour, or simply a hand-me-down (as parents increasingly have smartphones themselves), it is clearer that there is some scope for the age of smartphone acquisition to fall even further in the future.

Many parents, but also many children, are sensitive to the costs of acquiring smartphones, often worried that these very expensive items might potentially be lost or stolen, or simply break.  As with the traditional mobile phone, this can influence the choice of smartphone brand and subsequent limits imposed by parents on how and where the device can be used.  It can influence what children download as many parents advocate only acquiring the free apps. Younger children in particular have to ask permission to buy apps, often games. Sometimes subscriptions to internet service providers have limitations of various kinds, and hence children described how they monitor their own use and they were wary of using certain applications such as YouTube without Wi-Fi access, because they ‘eat up data’.  Hence, some children also ration their use, and often seek out places to use the smartphone with free Wi-Fi. This contributes to the fact that the main place where this portable device is used is actually the home, not when they are ‘mobile’. From the survey, 32% used them in their own room and 33% used the devices elsewhere in the home, compared to 18% using smartphones when on the move.

There are time constraints on when smartphones can be used.  Despite inter- and intra- country variation, there are many times in school that devices cannot be used, more so for primary school age children.  Parents also worry about the consequences of too much ‘screen time’. Many fear it might make children less sociable, less physically active, take time away from homework or more ‘worthy’ pursuits, cause eyestrain or lead their children to have insufficient sleep. This leads them to impose limits on how long their children can use the devices. While some young people may try to get around these rules, children of all ages do appreciate that these parental concerns are legitimate, and younger children in particular appear to be very compliant. Often it is the timing of use that is affected, as when children are allowed to use their various devices only after finishing homework, or not during ‘family times’ like mealtimes or holidays or other times deemed to be special (such as time watching TV together as a family or when there are visitors).  And it is common to prohibit use after the children’s ‘official’ bedtime. Independently of parental pressures, some children themselves impose time limits on their own use e.g. prioritising other activities, including school homework. Such children do recognise how smartphones can be a distraction, ‘wasting their time’ and so are wary of using the devices too much.

There are also spatial constraints on children’s usage. School has already been noted, but there are also some public spaces where children are wary of using their smartphones for fear that they might be stolen.  This often follows from parent and teacher advice not to use or have their phones on display on the way home from school.  And, as with traditional mobile phones, there are certain spaces (and occasions, like Church services) where use might not be socially appropriate, or where the children cannot find a (good enough) Wi-Fi connection.

Finally, there are social pressures not to use smartphones when socialising with peers. For example, some children and young people report that they do not check there smartphones all the time when out with friends as a form of etiquette. Or else children themselves complain about peers who cannot seem to manage to put the phone away when they are out together.  In this respect, they are not so different from adults.

Of course, despite all the above, children do use smartphones and feel generally positive about them, even if the older ones often complain, like many adults, about the disruptiveness of some calls and feeling obliged to be available to their peers. In practice, smartphones seem to make little difference to the risks, although it does make it easier to access the internet away from the surveillance of parents.  But perhaps the more striking result, as described in this blog, questions the assumptions of the levels of freedom children have to engage with the online world through smartphones and their ubiquitous use. The aim here has been to put this into perspective – there are social and economic reasons why children do not use the devices ‘anytime, anywhere’ and in practice why they are not always ‘at hand’.

This article gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Politcal Science.