Parliamentarians urge next UK govt to consider ban on smartphones for under-16s

Digital age of consent at 13 not even enforced, committee finds

A committee of MPs has urged the next government to consider a total ban on smartphones for under-16s in the UK.

The UK has seen a spike in young children's screen time since the pandemic, yet systems designed to protect them from harmful content are not fit for purpose, according to a report from a House of Commons education panel.

The Education Select Committee found no evidence that 13-year-old children could understand the implications of allowing platforms to have access to their personal data online. Even so, the age verification system was largely ignored, the report, based on a series of hearings, says.

It called on the next UK government — a general election in the UK takes place in July — to consult on raising the age of digital consent and should recommend 16 as a more appropriate age.

The committee found that children's screen time had increased 52 percent between 2020 and 2022 while a quarter of children and young people seemed addicted to their devices.

A fifth of children aged between three and four have their own mobile phone, while one in four children do by age eight. Almost all children have a device by age 12, the report found.

In February this year, the government gave new guidance to ban smartphones from schools for under 16s. The committee said the government should monitor the effectiveness of the guidance and prepare to introduce statutory measures if it is not working.

Education Committee chair Robin Walker said: "Without urgent action, more children will be put in harm's way. From exposure to pornography, to criminal gangs using online platforms to recruit children, the online world poses serious dangers. Parents and schools face an uphill struggle and Government must do more to help them meet this challenge. This might require radical steps, such as potentially a ban on smartphones for under-16s," he said.

"Whilst there can be some benefits from the online world and sharing information or interests with their peers, ready, unsupervised and unrestricted access to the internet leaves children vulnerable, exposing them to a world they are not equipped for. Their safeguarding and protection must be our priority," he said.

As well as calling for the next government to recommend 16 as a more appropriate digital age of consent, the report calls for the rules to be more effectively enforced.

In October last year, the UK introduced the Online Safety Act, which says tech companies should prevent illegal content from being distributed on their platforms and that they have the responsibility to remove it when identified. It also demands effective online age verification for children. Controversially, the law also effectively asks platform providers to bypass encryption, which critics have argued is unenforceable.

The select committee's report says the new legislation gives the government the power to fine or even imprison executives of companies who breach its rules.

It called on the winner of the general election to consider how the laws could be used against social media companies that knowingly breach age verification requirements and expose children to addictive content which is not appropriate for them.

However, researchers have argued, supported by evidence around young people's use of digital technology, that smartphone bans at an arbitrary age would not make young people safer or happier.

In April, Ofcom found nearly a quarter of children between the ages of five and seven use social media unsupervised.

In its annual study of children's relationships with the media and online worlds, the UK telecoms regulator, said infant schoolchildren are increasingly online and given more digital independence by parents.

The proportion of five- to seven-year-olds using social media has increased from 30 percent last year to 38 percent in Ofcom's 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. ®

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