A quarter of 5-7 year olds now use smartphones, says regulator

Social media use and gaming show steep increases within the age group, after UK comms watchdog given new powers

The UK's telecoms regulator has found that nearly a quarter of children between the ages of five and seven own a smartphone while a similar percentage use social media unsupervised.

In its annual study of children's relationships with the media and online worlds, comms regulator Ofcom found infant schoolchildren are increasingly online and given more digital independence by parents, as calls grow for greater regulation of social media use among under 14s.

The research showed 24 percent of five- to seven-year-olds own a smartphone, while 76 percent use a tablet.

It also documents increasing use of online platforms, social media and games. The proportion of 5-7s using of social media has increased from 30 percent last year to 38 percent in the 2024 survey. Many of the most popular apps in the market have seen big increases in the same period: WhatsApp use is up from 29 percent to 37 percent; TikTok from 25 percent to 30 percent; and Instagram from 14 percent to 22 percent.

Online gaming within the same age group has also jumped from 34 percent to 41 percent, with the number of kids aged five to seven playing shooter games rising from 10 percent to 15 percent.

Of the children using social media, 42 percent do so with parental supervision while 32 percent use it independently.

Ofcom points out that under the UK's new Online Safety Act, tech companies have a "legal responsibility to keep children safer online."

"We are clear they must be ready to meet their new duties once in force and stand ready to hold them to account," it said.

The Online Safety Act passed through Parliament in September last year, giving the regulator powers to fine companies up to £18 million ($22.28 million) or 10 percent of their global annual revenue, whichever is greater.

It was signed into law in October, amid continuing fears that that it would enable a government back-door to communications platforms suspected of distributing illicit content.

In its latest report, Ofcom says it is working at pace to implement the new laws. It plans to launch a consultation in May on its draft Children's Safety Code of Practice. This tells tech firms the steps they should take to ensure children have safer experiences online - including by protecting them from content that is legal but harmful to children, such as content promoting suicide or self-harm, and pornography.

The regulator is also planning further consultation later in the year to discuss "how automated detection tools, including AI, can be used to mitigate the risk of illegal harms and content most harmful to children."

Ministers are said to be considering banning sales of smartphones to children under the age of 16, while there have also been calls to enforce bans of social media use among under-14s.

In the US, Florida has already introduced legislation set to ban the use of social media among under-14s. ®

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