We have allowed mobile phones into our children’s lives far too early

·4-min read
 (Daniel Hambury)
(Daniel Hambury)

Take a look around you when you’re on the bus. Eventually, you’ll find yourself in the company of a small child in a pushchair. Chances are, the child will be unusually quiet for its age and that is for one simple reason: a smartphone in its little fist. It’s a blessing for the infant’s fellow passengers, obviously: my son’s party trick on a bus was gently and rhythmically to kick other people in the back of the legs from his pushchair ... most toddlers can be a pain. But there’s something creepy about this remedy, the universal pacifier of the smartphone. It’s buying a child’s silence at the expense of its normal development.

The Government’s new social mobility tsar, Katharine Birbalsingh, is onto this. She rejoices in the description of the toughest headteacher in Britain —actually, make that the toughest teacher — and as she herself says, it was brave of Liz Truss, equalities minister, to have appointed her. But from the off, she has identified premature mobile phone use as a problem. At her pre-appointment hearing by MPs she said: “I would like some campaigns, national campaigns on things like phones and not giving them to your toddler... I would love it if things like ‘don’t give your child a smartphone’ were to become part of the national consciousness.”  

She’s right. We’ve allowed mobile phones to become part of our children’s lives very early. Obviously, it’s a problem with teenagers for whom a phone is a conduit to the outside world, a kind of electronic limb. Don’t get me started on teenagers. But babies, pre-linguistic children? That’s wrong on all sorts of levels. I saw it in action in a Danish coffee house in Kensington last week. There was a tiny girl in her pushchair with her mother and grandmother. And she was hypnotised, not by them, not by her surroundings, not even by the proximity of cake, but by the phone her mother was holding for her, from which came some idiot American voice singing about washing your hands. I suppose there’s nothing actually noxious about the message — though as far as the girl was concerned, it could just have well have been Bring on the Revolution — but the effect was striking. Manifest addiction.

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Ms Birbalsingh was quite clear about the cost to a child’s development. “To give your toddler a phone to occupy him .... will make it much more difficult for him to read later because a book cannot compete with a phone. A phone has all sorts of flashing images and colours and adverts that pop up and so they break your attention span.

“A child from a young age that’s had that, it’s hard for them to find a book that’s black and white, flat, interesting.”  

Teachers will have to deal with the consequences of this addiction. How do you teach a child sums when they’re used to being hyper-stimulated? This is plainly relevant to social mobility. I bet you anything that when Bill Gates comes to have grandchildren, they won’t be allowed anywhere near a mobile phone until they’re of school age, and even then, it’ll be rationed. It’ll be poorer people who’ll be likely to trade a bit of peace at home for a child’s neurological and social development. Though, as with all these things, it’s never put like that.

The American Psychological Society has recommended that phones shouldn’t be given to pre-school children. That there are problems is borne out by a study of Japanese nursery-age children, 1,642 of them, which demonstrated that “routine and frequent” use of the smartphone technology was associated with bad behaviour.

The World Health Organisation has recommended that children aged between two and four should spend no more than an hour a day with a phone. They also complain that there isn’t much research out there on the problem (ethical concerns prohibit using child phone addicts as test subjects) ... and you know who should be funding that research? Yes, quite.

One of the last books by the brilliant children’s author, Judith Kerr, was Mummy Time, about the adventures a baby had while his mother was on her phone talking to her friends. The child had a lovely time; the mother was in another place. It was a shrewd observation. But the terrifying new scenario is that while the mother is chatting to her friends, her easiest option is to have a second smartphone to keep her toddler amused. 

And that’s the thing. If we’re to stop babies becoming phone addicts, we might have to set an example and use them less ourselves. Scary, huh?

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