UK father calls for voluntary curb on child smartphone use

Concerns are growing among parents that excessive smartphone use and exposure to social media are ruining their children’s physical and mental health. This led one father in the UK to set up Kids For Now, a group that campaigns for greater awareness of potential tech harms.

The voluntary group is aiming to encourage parents to adopt strength in numbers: the more that agree to delay their child’s access to smartphones, it believes, the more likely the idea is to catch on and limit children’s exposure to technology.

As such, Kids For Now wants parents to sign up to a voluntary agreement to delay giving their children a smartphone before the age of 14, or at the very least until secondary school age, which is 11 in the UK — where founder Sam Rice is based.

To be clear, Rice does not hold big tech companies solely responsible for what he sees as the negative impact that technology is having on children today. Rather, he believes that parents and schools must take more responsibility to ensure that children do not have unfettered access to internet technologies.

“I think that it's very popular for everybody to blame the big tech platforms, whether that's the government or the population blaming them,” he tells me. “But the tech platforms have got the legislation. It's actually the parents who aren't following the law and letting their kids go on TikTok and Facebook whenever they shouldn't be.”

Sam Rice, founder of Kids For Now
Sam Rice, founder of Kids For Now, would like more parents to delay their children's access to smartphone technology

Restrictions ineffective unless enforced

Legislation might not be quite the right word for it, but it’s true enough that the platforms have restrictions in place for younger users — whether or not these are adhered to being another question entirely.

TikTok announced in March that it would limit screen time for Under 13s to 60 minutes a day, with parental consent needed to add an extra half hour. And Meta this week announced that it would tighten up parental controls on Facebook Messenger and Instagram, allowing parents to monitor their children’s usage of the platforms.

“Some parents don't have any rules in place at all,” says Rice. “And I understand that it's a challenge for them if they've got older kids who are maybe 17 and then they've got a younger one who's nine — they've got to allow the older ones to have the freedom. And if they're in the same house as a younger child, how do you protect the younger child from what the older child is doing? It's a huge challenge.”

He adds: “I do sympathize with those parents, but then that has a knock-on effect on other parents like us, because we can't let our kid go around to that other kid's house, and that impacts relationships between children. And we don't want that either. We need intervention because at the moment, there's just nothing to help parents deal with this.”

Governments need to step in

This is precisely why Rice has a problem with the government, specifically the devolved administration in Scotland where he is raising a young family. To his mind, the state there is not doing enough to warn parents of the potential health hazards of technology.

“They've been promoting the benefits of technology, I would say, more than the risks,” he says. “And never do I hear anyone discourage parents from using technology. They always say that it's beneficial for children's learning, kids have to learn to use it and all this stuff. And they never encourage parents to withhold giving their children smartphones or social media. And that is the reason that I started my website, because I felt there was a huge gap there that just didn't make any sense.”

He cites a recent survey by fellow campaign group TechedOff, which found that 80% of parents are worried that their child is addicted to their device. Another 85% said smartphones and the like were compromising family life, and more than half felt their children’s behavior had worsened since getting one.

“And a similar number worried about what they're doing online and that they didn't have parental control set up,” adds Rice. “So, you know, that suggests that a lot of parents are concerned.”

Rice also suggests that schools are effectively toeing the line when it comes to technology in education and simply repeating the government’s message without questioning it.

“We really need to change the whole attitude,” he says. “The Scottish Government says it encourages schools to ‘positively embrace mobile technology to enhance learning’ and it says ‘mobile technology is an integral part of the lives of children.’ This kind of thing. They do acknowledge there are some risks, but it's framed as a misuse of the technology, not as an integral characteristic of the technology. I think it's unreasonable. The messaging needs to change, that's the key thing there.”

Big tech not entirely to blame, but not innocent either

And while he doesn’t want to jump on the “blame big tech” bandwagon, Rice tacitly acknowledges that the companies do have a share of responsibility. In particular, he doesn’t trust internet safety campaigns in schools, which he believes could be a stalking horse for product promotion.

“Certain internet safety campaigns are sponsored by the big tech companies Google, TalkTalk, O2, BT, for example,” he tells me. “They go into schools, they've got the trust of government and local education authorities. And they, I think, use internet safety as a way to promote their technology. They certainly never talk about how we can reduce children's use, they downplay the risks and promote the benefits. That's totally unacceptable. It's a scandal and something needs to be done to stop that.”

He still holds off blaming big tech entirely, but would certainly favor a ban that means giants like Google can’t “go into schools and use the guise of internet safety to market their products.”

He is under no illusions, however, adding that schools “are not going to do that on their own.” Instead governments must take the initiative and lead from above.

“It needs to come from the top down,” he says. “I've tried talking to schools and they just say: ‘We have to be neutral, we can't take a side.’ It seems to me that schools have been told by the government or the local education authority that they need to be pro-tech and they're not allowed to take a stance on this. Schools need to be clearly told from the authorities that they need to act on this and send a different message.”

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