1 in 4 Kids Under 7 have their own smartphone, claims Ofcom study


Kids on tablet

Infant school children are increasingly online and given more digital independence by parents, according to Ofcom’s annual study of children’s relationship with the media and online worlds.

Around a quarter of 5-7 year-olds (24%) now own a smartphone, while three-quarters use a tablet  (76%). Compared to a year ago, a higher proportion of 5-7s go online to send messages or make voice/video calls (59% to 65%) or to watch live-streamed content (39% to 50%).

Similarly, overall use of social media sites or apps among all 5-7s has increased year-on-year (30% to 38%), with WhatsApp (29% to 37%), TikTok (25% to 30%), Instagram (14% to 22%) and Discord (2% to 4%) seeing particular growth among this age group.

Online gaming among 5-7 year-olds has also seen a significant annual increase – 41%, up from 34% – with more children of this age playing shooter games than ever before (15%, up from 10%).

Today’s research comes as Ofcom prepares to consult in the coming weeks on a comprehensive set of proposals to ensure children are better protected online. Additionally, Ofcom is today announcing an additional area of focus for child safety, building on the robust measures set out in the regulator’s draft illegal harms Codes of Practice.

Solo on social

While around two in five parents of 5-7 year-olds (42%) say they use social media sites and apps together with their child, a third (32%) report that their child uses social media independently.

Compared to last year, parents of these younger children are more likely to say they would allow their child to have a profile on social media services before they had reached the minimum age required (30%, up from 25%).

It follows that more children of this age now have their profiles on YouTube or YouTube Kids (48%, from 39%), WhatsApp (11%, from 7%) and Instagram (9%, from 5%) than a year ago.

Three-quarters of parents of children aged 5-7 who go online say they have talked to their child about staying safe online (76%), and over half do so at least every few weeks (56%). 

The research suggests a disconnect between older children’s exposure to potentially harmful content online, and what they share with their parents about their online experiences. A third (32%) of 8-17s say they have seen something worrying or nasty online in the last 12 months, but only 20% of parents of this age group report their child telling them they had seen something online that scared or upset them in the same time frame.

Notably, girls aged 8-17 are more likely than boys of the same age to experience nasty or hurtful interactions online, both via text or messaging apps (20% vs 14%) and social media (18% vs 13%). Over nine in ten children aged 8-17 who go online (93%) can recall having had at least one lesson about online safety at school – of which three-quarters (76%) said it was useful to them. This rises to 97% among the 30% of children who had regular online safety lessons.

From sensory to the sensationalist – top online behavioural trends revealed

Today’s research studies reveal a number of other behavioural trends. These include:

Passive use of social media: Children aged 8-17 who use social media are significantly more likely to do so passively by ‘liking’ or ‘following’ other accounts (44%), rather than being active users who share, comment, or post content (28%). Participants in the qualitive study who did share content they created themselves, tended to do so strategically – for example, by only sharing posts temporarily on their stories, or among a select, smaller circle of friends on private social media accounts.

Stimulating, speedy, split-screen content: Stimulating, shortform videos with fast-paced choppy edits, featuring loud, dramatic, and exaggerated personas, continued to capture the attention of children in Ofcom’s qualitive study. Split-screen – and now triple-screen videos in one case – remain a feature of their viewing diet. Ofcom also observed several children using TikTok’s ‘fast-forward’ feature to race through videos at double speed.

Girls favour ‘soothing’ sensory videos: In contrast, there has been a rise in the number of qualitative study participants – specifically girls – watching autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) videos which offer tactile sensory stimulation at a much slower pace. These include interpersonal ‘point of view’ videos where a content creator appears to whisper directly to the viewer, role-play a friend, or stroke their hair. The children say they watch these videos to relax, or to help them go to sleep.

Real versus fake: Older teens are finding it harder to distinguish the real from the fake online. Children aged 16-17 years old are less confident in their ability to distinguish the real from the fake online than they were last year (75% vs 82%).

Chris Price
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