From bizarre TikTok fads to evading parental controls, managing your child’s relationship with screens can be a minefield.
By age 11, 91% of children in the UK own a smartphone, according to data from the country’s communications regulator, Ofcom, while a study of 19 European countries found 80% of children aged nine to 16 used one to go online daily, or almost daily. Meanwhile, recent survey data suggests 42% of US children have a smartphone by the age of 10, with 91% owning one by 14.
And it’s not just that smartphones have become more prolific: the average length of time children and young people – and adults – spend on their devices has been ticking up in recent years. The trends has been supercharged by lockdowns: 79% of UK parents reported their children’s screen time was up post-pandemic, though the latest 2023 global figures appear to show a return to pre-pandemic levels for adults. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2018, the average 11-to-14-year-old in the US spent nine hours daily in front of a screen.
Scores of parents from around the world told the Guardian about their children’s relationships with screens, ranging from toddlers to teenagers across six continents. While a significant minority were satisfied with their children’s smartphone use, most said they were unhappy with the time they spent online and the effect they believed it was having on their moods and concentration.
Steve, a parent to two teenage boys, 13 and 15, in the Netherlands, is among them. While he was unhappy with his sons’ phone use, the 54-year-old felt conflicted about how to resolve it. “One can’t not allow the kids to have a smartphone, not only because technology has become a fundamental aspect of modern life, but because it’s become part of how they interact with their peers,” said Steve, who works for a system integrator company.
His family uses Google’s Family Link to limit time spent on devices in tandem with more old-school methods, like a “no phones at the table” rule. They also discourage their children from “multimedia consumption”: “If you’re watching TV, don’t use your phone.”
Approaches to limiting the time their children spent in front of a glowing screen vary hugely. While some adopt a laissez-faire attitude, and others the “prevention is the best cure” method (zero, or strictly supervised access), most found themselves somewhere in the middle, imposing rules like “no screens at night”. Parents told us about a variety of monitoring tools they relied on – though many complained that their children were adept at dodging these controls.
While some opted for switching off the wifi or confiscating devices, others attempted more cooperative approaches, advocating “leading by example”, discussing their relationship to screens and encouraging other interests.
Parents like Aditya, 34, said their children spend less time online since they stepped in – something that is notably easier to do with younger children. Aditya, in Mumbai, said that his son was racking up to four hours daily staring at screens early last year. These days, the four-year-old is limited to half an hour a day of Peppa Pig and educational YouTube.
“His mother and I decided that the screen time is doing more harm than good, with his speech getting delayed and limited interaction with other children. It’s taken a humongous effort to bring down his screen time and get more board games, books and physical activity in his life,” Aditya, who works in banking, said. “We’ve tried to understand our child’s interests and then get related games and books for him.”
For Adrián, a 43-year-old engineer in São Paulo who limits his four-year-old daughter’s screen time to 30 minutes a day, leading by example is key. “Watching other people’s behaviour, I’ve realised how much we lose when the mobile is our priority. I have seen a whole family at a restaurant watching their mobiles and not talking.
“I try to use my mobile less – how can I expect my daughter not to be dependent if I do not lead by example?”
Parents of teenagers in particular raised concerns about the effect social media was having on their children’s mental wellbeing. Jane, 58, a psychologist in Cape Town, said her 15-year-old daughter had got around screen-time controls and was spending far longer than her allotted 45 minutes a day scrolling Instagram. Jane regularly chats with her daughter – who regards her monitoring as “annoying but good” – about how social media makes her feel. “In my mind, it’s not something to sort out and be done with, but keep talking about,” Jane said.
Her daughter, who cannot access the internet at home between 9pm and 7am, only got a smartphone 18 months ago, and she is still experimenting. “Instagram is the big one. She’s not on TikTok because she can see what a rabbit hole it is – she tried it briefly and removed it herself,” Jane explained. “When she’s stressed she turns to her devices even more, which I think exacerbates her stress.”
The speed of technological advancement can feel bewildering at times, and many parents felt overwhelmed by expectations that they should police their children’s digital lives. Rob, a power plant worker in north-west England, said his 14-year-old spends five hours daily on her phone.
“We know she spends way too much time on her phone, but we don’t really know how to reduce it. Our efforts are to try and encourage alternative activities,” Rob, 43, said. “Smartphone use is not the sole reason that my daughter’s mental health has deteriorated, but it’s such an easy go-to for instant satisfaction that it’s become her safe place, when the opposite is true in many cases.
“People who say ‘You should just put your foot down’ don’t really live in the real world. My daughter is 14, her phone is her life, her diary, her gateway into much of the world.”
For many parents, work and other commitments mean they struggle to regulate their child’s screen time. Nga, a teacher in her 30s in Vietnam, has found it difficult to maintain oversight over the content her six-year-old consumes on his grandparents’ phones while she’s at work. “I can’t control the content he watches,” she said, explaining that her child uses voice control to access videos and games. “I’m unhappy with the amount of screen time consumed by my son – it’s caused him problems related to his eyes,” she said, adding that she also worries it is negatively influencing his behaviour.
The pandemic was a turning point for many young people’s screen time. Charanjeet, the head of a food manufacturing company and a photographer in Singapore with two sons who are 12 and 15, said that things have not returned to how they were before. “The device usage went through the roof and we have not been able to reverse the process,” he said, though he acknowledged that his children also watch educational videos. “We worry that so many things happening around them are being missed with their faces glued to screens and AirPods in their ears.”
But the content consumed matters too, and many parents said they were pleased to see their children learning new skills online. Eileen, 41, a researcher in Pennsylvania, said: “We’re raising her bilingual English-Spanish and some of the shows have helped her with vocabulary,” explaining that her four-year-old daughter uses a tablet for around 90 minutes a day. Like other busy parents, she emphasised regretfully that it is her “only tool to get things done in the house once we get home”. “Setting time limits and finding appropriate content has been a challenge. We rely on parental controls.”
And for Jane, a 51-year-old product manager in Luxembourg and a parent to two teenagers, concerns around lengthy screen times are the wrong thing to focus on. “Phones and tablets are going to be part of their lives – they need to learn to control their own use,” she said, adding that her 14-year-old daughter acknowledges that she finds TikTok addictive and periodically deletes it. “It’s not about the device, it’s about the content consumed. New technology creates an existential crisis which blows over.”
For some young people, the ubiquity of the internet is affecting their social world as the potential for in-person connection shrinks. Marie, a health worker in New Zealand, said that when her 15-year-old son hangs out with most of his friends, they sit siloed in their separate digital worlds. “The norm is mostly sitting on their phones gaming, watching short videos or social media, even if they are together in real life. He finds it lonely and boring,” Marie, 46, said.
“It is definitely impacting on his friendships. Catching up in real life seems to happen less, the kids generally go home and go online. He feels a bit lonely. He says: ‘Life is OK and school is OK, except for socially.’”
Jack, Marie’s 15-year-old son, told the Guardian about how the ubiquity of smartphones upped the social pressure at school too. “How other kids smartphone use at school impacts me is negatively mostly … Everyone with a smartphone is mainly using it for social media. In and out of class you have the constant threat of any slip-up being recorded and posted for all to see. Interactions are more extreme if someone is filming it, [like] arguments, fights.”
The teenager said it made it harder to concentrate in class “if you have a bunch of people on their phones [and the phone screens] in the corner of your eyes”.
“My view is that phones would be fine if they only had texting and games, so that kids on them were affecting themselves, and not everyone else.”