back to article Brits start 'em young with 20% of tots 'owning' a smartphone

Nestled in UK regulator Ofcom's thoroughly unsurprising report into childhood media literacy for 2023 are a couple of eye-opening stats revolving around device ownership. Each year, the country's comms watchdog releases research on "the ability to use, understand and create media and communications in a variety of contexts" …

  1. Little Mouse Silver badge

    "by the time they are 12 it's something like 97 percent"

    Hardly surprising. My kids' secondary school "encouraged" all parents to make sure their kids all had a smartphone - Partly for some of the on-line aspects of the coursework and also for "safety" reasons e.g. So that they could always contact someone in a real emergency, never get lost, that kind of thing (sigh).

    That said, they were also never allowed to actually use them in school unless specifically instructed, which almost never happened.

    1. Version 1.0 Silver badge

      Re: "by the time they are 12 it's something like 97 percent"

      I bought my kid a cell phone when she was about to start at school so that she could talk with her friends. When I was her age I had to dial on the phone in the hallway at home - so we were both happy now that she could just talk sitting on the sofa while they both watched Dr. Who.

    2. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: "by the time they are 12 it's something like 97 percent"

      It seems to me that trying to learn online coursework through the medium of a 5"-5.5" screen would be about as successful as trying to eat a plate of fish and chips by sucking it through a straw, and schools really should know that instead of jumping on the bandwagon.

      1. matjaggard

        Re: "by the time they are 12 it's something like 97 percent"

        Nope, things can happily be made appropriate for the screen size. Also they tend now to write coursework in class (and do research and new learning at home) to prevent plagiarism and getting AI to write it for them

        1. LybsterRoy Silver badge

          Re: "by the time they are 12 it's something like 97 percent"

          Not to certain what you're on about (I'm an old fart) but it seems like you're saying they do teaching/learning at school and homework at home. Apart from using electronics that's what we did back in the pre dinosaur days.

          1. Is It Me

            Re: "by the time they are 12 it's something like 97 percent"

            From when GCSEs came in you used to do coursework (which counted towards your final grade) as a mix of in school and at home, that might be essays for English, paintings for art etc.

            My understanding from the comment was that now all of the coursework part is now being done under supervision in school and not a mix of in school and at home.

  2. Martin Summers Silver badge

    Prior to the Internet, the telly box was the babysitter for a lot of kids, the delivery method has just changed.

    What really is the problem, is adults having kids and then paying no attention to them or doing anything with them at all because they are glued to their phones. I've been guilty of this.

    Then there's 'sharenting' where a poor kids whole life ends up on social media with little or no concern for their privacy. This is particularly damaging when they grow to being adults which many from the first generation to suffer this now are.

    The memories that should be cemented in your mind are absent, because you were staring at them through a screen passively rather than being engaged with the live situation. And it's too late to get them back.

    1. heyrick Silver badge

      The glass eyed babysitter in the corner, back then, at least had to follow some sort of standards. Social media doesn't, so what lessons are young kids learning? Probably not how to count to four in Spanish and beware of angry female pigs.

      1. wolfetone Silver badge

        I disagree. I have vivid memories of watching CITV, then going to Home & Away, then the international news would come on at 6pm telling you how close India and Pakistan were to nuclear war.

        All of this pre-watershed. Just because you don't see the blood doesn't mean the idea is just as scary.

        1. Captain Hogwash

          I agree. What the piles of skulls in Cambodia and the discovery of the body of Lesley Whittle did to my prepubescent mind is quite literally the stuff of nightmares.

        2. Little Mouse Silver badge

          But real news, properly presented, is a far cry from unregulated inanity. My earliest memory of similar would probably be the John Craven's Newsround coverage of a famine in Bangladesh in the 70's. Pretty harrowing stuff, but still important to know about, even at that age.

          (Edit: But yes, there are limits of course. Truly evil stuff can't easily just be "talked through".)

          1. PRR Bronze badge
            Thumb Down

            > But real news, properly presented, is a far cry from unregulated inanity. My earliest memory of similar would probably be the John Craven's Newsround coverage of a famine in Bangladesh in the 70's. Pretty harrowing stuff, but still important to know about, even at that age.

            For me, a bit earlier, it was Harvest Of Shame. Migrant workers in the US, 1960. On Wiki -- on YouTube

            "We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them."

            The jobs were eventually 'off-shored' to Mexico, Columbia, and poorer places, but the rent-a-slave trade lives on.

      2. MyffyW Silver badge

        I suspect that is where I went wrong: rather than being wary of angry female pigs, I took Miss Piggy as aspirational lifestyle advice. An influencer before her time.

        1. heyrick Silver badge

          My role model was Cookie Monster.

          Might explain a few things...

      3. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        >The glass eyed babysitter in the corner, back then, at least had to follow some sort of standards.

        Why yes that nice Mr Saville was going to fix me

    2. Shuki26

      The algorithm is the new remote control

      Back in our day, we only had a limited amount of channels to scroll through, so ultimately kids hooked on TV would be exposed to A LOT 'content' that was not in their direct interest and ultimately, watch other stuff.

      Now, my kids are only watching 'entertainment' and Youtube will by nature never expose them to other content like science and nature. And even if I do try to reengineer their feed, the algorithm will always reconcentrate on their entertainment choices.

      1. the spectacularly refined chap

        Re: The algorithm is the new remote control

        Back in our day, we only had a limited amount of channels to scroll through, so ultimately kids hooked on TV would be exposed to A LOT 'content' that was not in their direct interest and ultimately, watch other stuff.

        It could still happen though. I remember at Uni, I'd pick up a Guardian every day on the way in, probably spend an hour a day reading it. Then someone mentioned some catastrophic flooding in (from memory) Bangladesh. What's that then? Supposedly it's been the top news story for the last three weeks. No, I've not heard about it. Then I picked up my paper and yes it's right there on page 1, 2, 3 and so on. Never the whole page, somehow my attention was drawn to a different story each time.

    3. LybsterRoy Silver badge

      Yup - the childhood equivalent of going on holiday and spending the entire time looking through a camera (video or still) rather than at the world.

  3. This post has been deleted by its author

  4. heyrick Silver badge

    "Where kids get their kicks now is mostly on YouTube and TikTok"

    Indoctrinate them while they're impressionable...

    1. alain williams Silver badge

      Remove all notion of privacy from them while they're impressionable...


  5. moonhaus

    "these phones are most likely hand-me-downs from parents or siblings who have upgraded, and lack a SIM to be used simply as a smaller tablet"

    I think it's safe to say that if the device has a SIM slot, it'll almost certanly have an active SIM in it, given the cost is effectivly zero and the networks send you multiple free ones if you even glance at their websites.

    Even if just so it can be rung to find it, when lost behind the sofa.

    1. doublelayer Silver badge

      Where do you live, and if it happens to be where I live, how does one find these things? I have tried to find such a thing before so that I could use the mobile networks to connect some projects of mine. They don't need to send or receive much data, and in most cases they'd be inactive most of the time. What I've found are some relatively cheap plans which still require a monthly payment even if you haven't used it and some prepaid ones that will automatically cancel service if it hasn't been used every six months if not more frequently and weren't free before.

      There are a few good cheap mobile options, but in my case, I'm comparing the costs of the connection to the costs of the hardware (in most cases, a Raspberry Pi or similar computer connected to some cheap parts). If it's backup mobile connection for a year costs more than the hardware, I consider that excessive. I haven't found one yet which deals with this problem.

      1. matjaggard

        Can't you just automate the sending of an SMS every month to keep the prepaid SIM active?

        1. doublelayer Silver badge

          For projects as I've described, you can do that. It works less well if it's being used in a phone that's manually controlled. The last time I considered something like this, the plan had an automatic cancellation system and also expired the credits at some point, meaning that although I wouldn't be paying every month, I'd still end up with periodic bills for a connection that went unused. Their business model didn't appear to be well-designed for buying lots of low-use lines, which is probably intentional.

          Maybe things have changed, but I wouldn't expect the average family using old phones as minitablets to have configured them with even a cheap connection unless they expected to use them to communicate; the costs are not prohibitive, but they're also not so small that they'd be irrelevant.

          1. ok i'll sign up

            I am on giffgaff (uk). Based abroad (outside eu) maybe 23 months out of 24 during covid it was nearer 3.5 years between visits

            I have 20gbp of credit and perhaps send a text once every year or so. Receiving text messages cost me nothing and i get them maybe once/month, usually from the bank.

            Seems to work fine, no plan or anything.

  6. John Robson Silver badge

    3.5 hours a week of broadcast TV?

    I don't think we consume that much a month as a household, let alone any individual. (and that's very concentrated into events like the six nations)

  7. Valeyard

    my kid watches youtube (traditional kids tv shows anyway; mr tumble, button moon and postman pat rather than some quick-cuts attention-sapping 3d animation like cocomelon which is outright banned), but it's on the TV with us in the room too being made to watch it and limit the screentime. Used that way the same rules of TV usage apply

    Phone-wise she's happy with a 2g flip-phone that lives in her bag until she actually needs to call us for a lift tor something. We've never sat with our faces in our phones around her growing up so it's not something that was normalised behaviour

  8. Cybersaber

    You might want to reconsider your overshare, Richard

    Sharing details about your own kids and putting forth your opinions about how you justify your decisions makes them fair game for discussion, since you started the discussion yourself with the premise 'This is what I do as a parent and why I say it's a good/fine thing.'

    I will refrain from making any commentary thereof beyond that meta-level, but you should consider what you're putting out there and be ready for contrary or negative opinions of your parenting, since you yourself made it fair game for discussion. I'd recommend you get on your flame-proof jumpsuit. :)

    1. Excellentsword (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: You might want to reconsider your overshare, Richard

      Can't get flamed if you don't read the comments

      1. Little Mouse Silver badge

        Re: You might want to reconsider your overshare, Richard

        Anyway, there's no flaming on this site, because we're all mature sensible adults here.


    2. Cybersaber

      Re: You might want to reconsider your overshare, Richard

      I'm starting to think downvotes are a badge of honor. I wrote to the author to raise awareness that he used personal anecdotes as opinion support for his article, so it kind of muddies the waters of what is fair game in a discussion, since a rebuttal to his opinion could ALSO be an ad-hominem attack. Such arguments are a fallacy, and verboten in good debates, but the two were inextricably entwined. I specifically said I didn't have offer any commentary on his opinions, to make it clear I was making a meta-point about the effects of his writing were.

      It's a fact, not an opinion, that he used personal anecdotes to support his proposition. It's a conjecture that this would make the daylight between 'legitimately and respectfully rebutting his position' and 'criticizing his parenting' effectively disappear. That was the point of my comment, to make sure he'd considered that, and to put on his 'flame proof' outfit before reading the comments. The author understood and made a funny reply.

      I still got six down-votes. I'm on the fence whether that means that downvotes should be a badge-of-honor for this comments section... Or maybe this thread is an exemplar for why we're semi-affectionately referred to as commentards.

  9. Dan 55 Silver badge


    You're a braver parent than I if you install YouTube Kids and trust Google's algorithm to select kid-friendly videos for your offspring, as if Elsagate had never happened (and still isn't happening).

    1. moonhaus

      Re: Nope

      "as if Elsagate had never happened (and still isn't happening)"

      I can't understand why Elsagate style accounts aren't Frozen.

      I'll get my coat.

      1. spireite Silver badge

        Re: Nope

        Don't start this argument.... let it go

    2. DuncanLarge Silver badge

      Re: Nope

      The adverts shown to the Kids right in the bloody middle of Cloud Babies are not exactly welcome

  10. jmch Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Thumbs Up...

    ...for the final comment. I've also found that feeding and guiding kids' curiosity works much better than blanket bans

  11. spold Silver badge

    >>>> He can name all planets in the solar system including dwarfs and some moons too.

    Yup Doc, Sleepy, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Bashful and Sneezy

    I was going to make some comment about a planet beginning with U in connection with moons but I couldn't think of an appropriate one.

  12. JT_3K

    Tablet ownership isn't the worst thing in the world. I can't speak for Android ecosystem, but the Apple one allows a device to be locked down to completely reject internet in any capacity, to enforce the parent to approve apps and for screen time. Granularity allows full whitelist-only capabilities and when paired with Netflix/iPlayer with age restrictions, educational apps, age-restricted native podcasts, Spotify (explicit locked) and an app-connected early-start bank card, can definitely prove net positive.

    As a vintage gaming hobbyist, my 7yo regularly gets targeted exposure and is currently working her way through Portal 2. Are some of the contents 100% suitable or easy to understand at that age: probably not. The net positive however is discussion (and a working understanding) of some degree level physics, recognition of the ultimate importance of maths, discussion on time-travel, excellent hand-eye coordination and a massive push to complex problem solving.

    It's hard given the consistent message of "screen time bad" that still persists from the early-90's but when a child of her age is able to use their self-directed learning to go challenge the signs and volunteers at a National Trust property, is pushed to read-at-speed (hidden in many of her games) until they're reading two or so "key-stages" above their age or is happily explaining how light cheats in races or Laminar Flow to an elderly relative, I feel the benefits are clear to see.

    1. matjaggard

      I'm glad I wasn't the only one who got Portal back up for the kids

  13. Plest Silver badge

    Don't give in to them until it's necessary!

    Kids learn and adapt way, way faster than adults, they'll catch up 'cos kids don't over think stuff.

    We started our daughter off with an MP3 player when she was about 7, she didn't get a phone until she was about 10 years old just before she started secondary school. We had a tablet available for very long car journeys but only for those very long journeys, most of the time we'd all listen the same music and just talk in the car, we'd always get out at places walk around or just sit in the car and stare are the rain! It was nice as we always talk, all three of us can sit anywhere and any time and just have a conversation as a family, something both my wife and I desperately miss now our daughter's away at uni.

    My wife and I are both tech nuts, we're both gamers and my wife even does the PC and tech support for the family and she asks me if she onlhy uses me as backline support. My daughter's boyfriend is studying cybercrime and development at uni, so she's surrounded by techies. However with all this tech the upshot of all is that my daughter has very little interest in technology, to her it's just a bunch of tools to get stuff done and she can call on 3 people for help! She has a phone and a laptop she uses at uni, I made sure it was a macbook with Applecare as we don't need to be doing remote support 250 miles away.

    Kids don't care about tech, it's just tools to them, nothing special and they can easily adapt when they need to and they know how to ask for help without worrying about looking daft.

  14. DuncanLarge Silver badge

    If I had a penny

    > having the entirety of human knowledge in one's pocket can and should be used for good.

    No. That is a fallacy. You have quick access to a large amount of knowledge both true and false.

    You dont have access to everything that has been published, and yes I'm talking of the books you can get from a library or a second hand bookshop today, not ancient tomes.

    You dont have access to every doccumentary etc ever broadcast. A lot of that is trapped on VHS tape and more trapped on UMATIC tapes and locked in the BBC archives etc. Now maybe some documentaries have been updated with newer releases such as Carl Sagans Cosmos which of course needed an update as Astronomy answered questions and found new ones. Now the original Cosmos is easily avalaible and should be watched in tandem with the new stuff as the original one has loads to offer and teach, only lacking the new information.

    When you really look at it you find that much of the knowledge on the internet is also locked behind a paywall. DRM is rife, even ebooks delete themselves overnight, they dont wait for you to finish making notes.

    So the entirety of human knowledge is not on the internet. It is in fact spread across multiple media types, some of which are locked behind paywalls or legal issues etc. What you think is the entirety of knowledge on the internet is actually a mish mash of knowledge and made up psuedo factoids as well as downright lies. You only know the truth that a serach engine algorithim decided to show you and even then you, or your kid, have no idea if its real or fake. You cant even trust a video as deepfakes are childs play to create and can make anyone say anything. Then there is something like ChatGPT, an overhyped language simulator that on paper (well on screed) looks like it is actually thinking, searching, teaching you things, but when you REALLY talk to it, and read what others have said, you find that it can do those thinsg as well as make the whole load of crap up. It's a language simulator and it is not surprising it can make everything and anything asked of it up, it only knows how to put words together, yet people are reading it and it reads so well that "it must be true".

    So, is the tosh that people are making ChatGPT spit out also part of the entirety of knowledge you think little kiddies have?

    My young cousins once asked me "whats an index"? They had no clue how to use a book. They just asked google and google spat out what was the most popular thing, even if it was total shit ripped off a website that had been popular for some reason. No checking, no cross referencing, nothing. The word, the FIRST words from Google were unimpeachable. Even I have fallen into that trap.

    So if I had a penny for every time someone who doenst understand the enourmous danger of saying "the internet has the entirety of human knowledge on it and my 3 year old is a superbrain because of it" I'd be a lot richer.

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