My daughter has started clamouring for her own mobile phone. She will be 10 in August and the idea of her having unmediated access to all a smartphone allows makes me very uncomfortable. This puts me in the somewhat embarrassing position of agreeing with Gavin Williamson. The Education Secretary suggested this month that phones could act as a “breeding ground” for cyber-bullying and that social media could damage mental health.
There is some evidence that supports these concerns — one recent report suggested one in four young people have a dysfunctional relationship with their phone and that those with problematic smartphone use are more likely to have depression, anxiety, feelings of stress and poor sleep as well as poorer educational attainment. Those are all legitimate reasons to worry about the age at which children should be allowed to have their own phones.
When I asked my Twitter followers what the right age was, the vast majority suggested 11, when children start secondary school. However, according to recent research the majority of children — 53 per cent — own a phone by the age of seven, and that seems shockingly young. I can understand why, for reasons of safety and reassurance, an 11-year-old might want one. It is also true, as author and poet Michael Rosen pointed out this week, that with smartphones “whole libraries, vast banks of knowledge and multimedia resources are available to us (and the phone is) a camera, a recording device and a film maker”.
My daughter might not yet have her own phone but she spends plenty of time on my wife’s to create film trailers using iMovie, to stay in touch with her grandparents and to watch videos about Great White sharks —all fairly wholesome activities. It isn’t so much what she will access that worries me. Giving your child a phone feels like a rite of passage — an admission that they are no longer just our little children whom we can entirely protect. With that fear is another: that once my daughter is lost in the world of the smartphone, she will be lost to us, her parents. I fear that when my daughter gets a phone she won’t pay full attention to what is going on in front of her because she will be distracted.
The irony is that as a parent I am guilty of giving my children what the tech expert Linda Stone has called “continuous partial attention”. I scroll Twitter while reading stories to my little boy, I play chess on my phone while listening to my daughter tell me about her school day. I wake up and go to bed staring at my phone. Maybe, just maybe, that is why my daughter is so keen to have a phone. The uncomfortable truth is that while my fears about what a mobile phone might do to her are entirely theoretical, there is already a phone addict in the family, and it’s me.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have released two portraits to mark their 10th wedding anniversary. The pictures are engagingly warm, intimate and informal. The most striking thing about them is how little the couple — Kate in particular — appear to have changed in 10 years. You would think that a decade in the global spotlight and having three children would leave a greater mark. My wife and I have also been married for 10 years and it is hard for me to even look at photographs from our wedding. The man staring back at me seems so much younger, better-looking and carefree than the one I am today. My wife looks exactly the same though.