Brits start 'em young with 20% of tots 'owning' a smartphone

And what are they doing with them? YouTube, lots of YouTube

Nestled in UK regulator Ofcom's thoroughly unsurprising report into childhood media literacy for 2023 are a couple of eye-opening stats revolving around device ownership.

Each year, the country's comms watchdog releases research on "the ability to use, understand and create media and communications in a variety of contexts" among kids aged three to 17.

Since some adults are incapable of moderating their internet and technology usage, it is easy to accept that the children of the Terrible Twenties have never been so switched on and connected.

Much of the report [PDF] is to be expected – 97 percent used the internet in 2022, 74 percent have access to a tablet, 67 percent to a laptop, 77 percent to a games console, 56 percent to a smart speaker, and 51 percent to a desktop computer.

About nine in 10 (89 percent) played video games – 25 percent on a computer, 43 percent on a tablet, 49 percent on mobile, and 59 percent on a console.

The way youngsters consume television is transforming as well, with live broadcast viewing falling by 20 percent for four to 15-year-olds from 4.5 hours a week in 2021 to little more than 3.5 hours a week in 2022. But when the top billing on a Sunday night is Antiques Roadshow, anyone can be forgiven for seeing what's available on Netflix et al.

Where kids get their kicks now is mostly on YouTube and TikTok, which Ofcom described as "near-universal" at 96 percent, and this folds into some surprising findings with regard to mobile phone ownership.

Smartphones (69 percent) and tablets (64 percent) were the most used devices for three to 17-year-olds going online. Kids in the upper bracket (12-17) were more likely to use phones for this purpose, while 3-11s were mostly on a tablet.

However, according to Ofcom: "Ownership of mobile phones increases gradually up to age 8, when the rate of ownership accelerates to levels that are near-universal among children aged 12 and remains so into adulthood. This acceleration coincides with the move for many children from primary to secondary school."

So how many three-year-olds actually "own" a mobile phone? Ofcom pegs this at 20 percent, and by the time they are 12 it's something like 97 percent, hitting 99 percent by age 17.

Now, before we start clutching pearls, these phones are most likely hand-me-downs from parents or siblings who have upgraded, and lack a SIM to be used simply as a smaller tablet for the consumption of video over the internet.

What are they doing with them? YouTube – including YouTube Kids – was used by 88 percent of three to 17-year-olds in 2022, and as a daily YouTube consumer and proud parent of two young boys (three and six), your correspondent believes this to be accurate.

Usage figures for other apps were lower as only older children would get the most out of them: WhatsApp was at 55 percent, TikTok 53 percent, Snapchat 46 percent, Instagram 41 percent, and lame old people's Facebook was at 34 percent. It should be noted, however, that children far too young for TikTok are still using it – something the platform was fined £12.7 million ($15.78 million) for by the Information Commissioner's Office.


While one in five tots owning a smartphone might raise eyebrows, platforms like YouTube aren't always the brain-rotting dross we think they are.

Articles pop up yearly about how content inappropriate for children is slipping through filters, but my own experience of allowing my kids to use the internet has been overwhelmingly positive.

I have found the majority of videos served via YouTube's specialized "Kids" version have been either genuinely educational or at the very least sparked inquisitiveness on a variety of topics.

Like AumSum Time, which presents a number of stupidly impossible scenarios such as "what if our Sun turned into a black hole?" While this initially scared my three-year-old, it gave me the opportunity to explain that the Sun could never turn into a black hole because it's not nearly massive enough. Which led to a number of conversations about how far the nearest black hole is, which led to an explanation of light-years, and what makes one supermassive. He can name all planets in the solar system including dwarfs and some moons too.

Just having a phone on me at bedtime can be educational too. For instance, on seeing a dodo in a book saying, "I'm not supposed to be here," they asked what it is, and I was able to show pictures and offer facts about the dodo and why it isn't around anymore. These are major wins in my opinion – having the entirety of human knowledge in one's pocket can and should be used for good.

But supervision is important, something Ofcom's report touches on too, saying that 65 percent of parents sat beside their three to four-year-old children, watching or helping them. My two only watch on the TV, which means we can always see or hear what they are doing. Still, I can recall only one instance when I blacklisted something (a video singing "Planet Earth is falling down" because of COVID-19). Everything else was fairly benign.

But no, they do not own a phone or tablet, and will not until it's absolutely impossible to avoid. ®

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