Parents have made smartphones a school problem

The move to ban smartphones in NSW high schools is undoubtedly met with groans and eye rolls by teenagers. But I’m not judging them. I, too, am rolling my eyes. Not at teachers, principals or even the government. Nope, my beef is with parents.

Data collated this year suggests that 37 per cent of children under 12 have a smartphone. That’s jumped by 15 per cent in five years. The average age of a pre-teen smartphone owner was seven-and-a-half years old. Almost 1 in 10 were given a smartphone between the ages of five and seven. Many five-year-olds are still learning the alphabet and how to count to 20. Is it just me, or is something not adding up?

Parents need to be the pilots not the passengers of these digital planes.


Research shows social media’s negative impact on kids. It’s addictive and terrible for their mental health. Smartphones further exposing children to the 24-hour brutality of cyberbullying and online grooming is also a disturbing problem.

The dangers are well-documented, and unlike tablets and laptops, phones offer round-the-clock, pocket-sized, and unfettered access to the online world. So why on earth are more and more parents giving even younger children smartphones?

Inevitably, mobile phone use leads to social media use, and my daughters know kids as young as seven who use Instagram and TikTok, despite the minimum age being 13. You can usually spot them near the handball courts gyrating to sexualised songs from TikTok or at the playground mimicking dangerous pranks that are going viral.

I understand the pressure to give in to children pleading for a smartphone, but the list of harms is far longer than the number of vowels a child can use to elongate the begging: “Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeaase, all my friends have one. Why are you sooooooo strict and mean? I promise I won’t spend heaps of time on it.”

Mobile phones make children more sedentary. Myopia in kids is skyrocketing thanks to excessive screen use and – crucially – young children don’t have the digital literacy skills and maturity to navigate the huge amounts of content they will come across online.

Safety is often cited as the primary reason to give a child a phone. I understand that some kids catch public transport to and from school. I also empathise with the fact that many households have both parents working due to that fat mortgage and cost of living pressures. Add after-school activities to the mix and, well, as a mother of two I can attest to the logistics and comms required to juggle it all.

However, most of the above can be solved by using a good old-fashioned dumb phone like a Nokia, which anyone over 30 might once have used. It can only take calls and send texts. There are also a range of watches that can track a child’s location, but kids can only make or receive calls and texts from home.

Parents need to be the pilots not the passengers of these digital planes that are taking off faster than we can say “don’t send anyone a photo of your genitals”.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one. A growing number of parents want to give the finger emoji to smartphones for their young kids. The Heads Up Alliance is a growing parent community that tries to encourage other families to ban social media and smartphones among primary schoolchildren. Their overall aim is to encourage parents to delay smartphones and instead use that time to prepare children on how to safely use them when they’re older.

This group was among those who lobbied the government to bring in the school ban. While schools and governments have a role to play in managing the use of smartphones, the fundamental duty of care and early introduction comes from the home.

I’m not suggesting smartphone prohibition. Instead, we should wait until children are physically, mentally and emotionally ready to understand and navigate their consumption and the dangers that come with its use.

Many parents I know regret giving their child a smartphone as early as they did, but I have yet to meet a parent who is kicking themselves for holding back.

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This article has been updated to correct a previous version which stated the number of children under 12 with a smartphone has increased by 37 per cent in three years. That figure is in fact an increase of 15 per cent in five years.

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