When setting house rules for smartphone use – such as not keeping the phone in a child’s bedroom overnight – parents also need to take an honest look at their own smartphone use.
“Children hate hypocrisy,” says Livingstone. “They hate feeling they’re being told off for something that their parents do, like using the phone at mealtimes or going to bed with a phone.”
Even very young children learn from their parent’s phone use. A European report into digital technology use among children from birth to eight years old found that this age group had little or no awareness of the risks, but that children often mirrored their parents’ technology use. Some parents even discovered during the study that children knew their device passwords, and so could access them independently.
But parents can use this to their advantage by getting younger children involved during smartphone-based tasks, and modelling good practice. “I think this involvement and co-use, that’s actually a good way for them to learn what’s happening on this device, what it is for,” says Stevic.
Ultimately, when to buy a smartphone for a child comes down to a value decision for parents. For some, the right decision will be not to buy one – and, with a little bit of creativity, children without a smartphone don’t have to miss out.
“Children who are reasonably confident and sociable will find workarounds and be part of the group,” says Livingstone. “After all, mostly their social life is at school, mostly they see each other every day anyway.”
In fact, learning to cope with the fear of missing out they feel by not having a phone could prove a useful lesson for older teenagers when – no longer constrained by their parents – they inevitably buy one for themselves, and need to learn how to set limits.
“The trouble with the fear of missing out is that it’s never ending, so everyone’s got to learn to draw a line somewhere,” says Livingstone. “Otherwise, you’d just be scrolling 24/7.”
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