Fifty per cent of the UK's 10-year-olds owned a smartphone in 2019, according to a report by media regulator Ofcom.
The amount of young phone owners doubled between the ages of nine and 10, which Ofcom dubbed “the age of digital independence”.
In addition, 24% of 3 and 4-year-olds had their own tablet, and 15% of them were allowed to take it to bed.
Ofcom's annual report looks at the media habits of children, and the types of devices they are using.
The 2019 study was based on more than 3,200 interviews with children and parents around the UK.
Parents more concerned about their children online [news release]
More parents than ever feel children’s online use now carries more risks than benefits, according to Ofcom’s latest research into children’s media and online lives.
Our Children’s Media Use and Attitudes report 2019 is based on around 3,500 interviews with children and parents. Children’s Media Lives is a qualitative report looking at how children aged eight to 18 think about and use digital media.
Parents and carers are becoming more likely to trust their children with greater digital independence at a younger age. But far fewer believe the benefits of their child being online outweigh the risks than five years ago. And around two million parents now feel the internet does their children more harm than good.
This comes as children are now more likely to see hateful content online. Half of 12-15s who go online had seen hateful content in the last year, up from a third in 2016.
Parents are increasingly concerned about their child seeing something online which might encourage them to harm themselves. Similarly, two gaming-related problems are increasingly concerning parents: the pressure on their child to make in-game purchases of things like ‘loot boxes’, a virtual item containing rewards; and the possibility of their child being bullied via online games.
However, parents are now more likely than in 2018 to speak to their children about staying safe online, and are nearly twice as likely to go online themselves for support and information about keeping their children safe.
Influencers, online activism and girl gamers
Looking at what today’s children are doing online, we uncovered three big trends over the past year.
- The ‘Greta effect’. There is increased online social activism among children. Almost a fifth of 12-15s use social media to express support for causes and organisations by sharing or commenting on posts. One in 10 signed petitions on social media.
- Rise of the ‘vlogger next door’. While high-profile YouTube stars remain popular, children are now increasingly drawn to so-called ‘micro’ or ‘nano’ influencers. These often have fewer followers, but might be local to a child’s area or share a niche interest.
- Girl gamers on the increase. Almost half of girls aged five to 15 now play games online – up from 39% in 2018. The proportion of boy gamers is unchanged at 71%, but boys spend twice as long playing online each week as girls.
Social media use more fragmented
Older children are using a wider range of social media platforms than ever before. WhatsApp in particular has grown in popularity among 12-15 year-olds since last year, despite having a minimum age limit of 16.
WhatsApp is now used by almost two thirds of older children – up from 43% in 2018. For the first time, it rivals Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram as one of the top social media platforms for older children.
Newer platforms are also becoming more popular. Around one in seven older children use TikTok, which enables users to create and upload lip-sync, comedy and talent videos, while one in 20 older children uses Twitch, a live streaming platform for gamers.
Alexa – how many children use smart speakers?
Children are using more connected devices than ever before. Among these, smart speakers saw the biggest increase over the past year, with more than a quarter of children now using them. Children’s use of smart TVs also increased.
Children’s viewing habits are changing radically too. Almost twice as many children watch streaming content than they did five years ago In 2019, fewer children watched traditional broadcast TV than streaming content, with a quarter not watching it at all.
But YouTube is as popular as ever, remaining children’s firm favourite for video ahead of Netflix, Amazon Prime, the BBC and ITV.
The age of digital independence
When it comes to going online, children are most likely to use a tablet but mobiles are becoming increasingly popular and children are now as likely to use a mobile as they are a laptop.
This move to mobile is being driven by older children, for whom 10 is becoming the age of digital independence. Between age nine and 10, the proportion of children who own a smartphone doubles to 50% – giving them greater digital freedom as they prepare to move to secondary school. By the time they are 15, almost all children have one.
Today’s children have never known life without the internet, but two million parents now feel the internet causes them more harm than good.
So it’s encouraging that parents, carers and teachers are now having more conversations than ever before with children about online safety. Education and stronger regulation will also help children to embrace their digital independence, while protecting them from the risks.
Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom's Strategy and Research Group Director