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We know that the early years is a time of phenomenal growth. Children are like sponges, soaking up stimuli around them and developing knowledge and new skills at an incredible rate. It is also a period that has a significant impact on the rest of an individual’s life, with the foundations being laid for lifelong habits. Therefore, as parents and professionals we must think carefully about the input children receive in the early years, and more so than ever before, consider the role that online activity plays.
It is impossible not to notice that children are accessing devices and going online for more time, and from a younger age - especially since the Covid-19 pandemic. Recent research from Ofcom (2023) highlighted that children are accessing devices and going online for more time, and from a younger age. They found that 87% of 3–4-year-olds go online (an increase from previous years’ data), with 92% of children in this cohort watching videos on streaming sites such as YouTube. When children go online, they are most likely to be using a tablet (75%), but in this report, parents suggest that 25% of 3–4-year-olds own a mobile phone.
With children accessing online devices earlier, it should be unsurprising that they are now also being exposed to risks from a younger age. Risks such as struggles with emotional regulation, overstimulation, being overweight due to increases in sedentary activity, experiencing bullying, accessing inappropriate content and taking sexual images. With regards to the latter, a 2023 report from the Internet Watch Foundation, found that the biggest increase in concerns of children being coerced into taking sexual imagery of themselves, is within the 7–10-year-old group, where there has been a 360% increase of such concerns compared to the previous year’s data. Most of this imagery (78%) is created without an abuser physically present, meaning children are usually using a device alone in their bedroom – a place where parents would consider children to be safest. Frightening statistics. But this post isn’t about creating fear and panic. We are NOT urging you to lock away your devices . Accessing the internet can be beneficial for children in many ways and is a consistent part of all of our adult lives. Instead, we think knowledge is power, and that both early years professionals and parents, should be proactive in understanding the risks, and putting in place measures that protect children, and promote safe, healthy and fun online activity. Adults should manage and curate children’s first online experiences, rather than leaving this to chance.
Ultimately this is for parents to decide, however we know that in the first 5 years of a child’s life the focus should be on developing their communication, language, physical skills and emotional development. As such, the World Health Organisation recommends children should “sit less and play more”. They recommend no sedentary screen time at all for under 2-year-olds. For children aged 2 - 4 years, a maximum of 1 hour per day sedentary screen time is recommended (but less is better). The main reason for this is that there is much more developmental benefit when children spend their time engaging in things like physical activity, social interactions and exploring literature with an adult, compared to being passive and sedentary in front of a screen. Having said this, we are also realistic and acknowledge that many parents do allow their young children access to online devices, and so we hope the guidance below will help you to support the child and their parents as best as possible.
Apps, games, devices, sites …. It can all feel quite overwhelming and intimidating. But there are some very basic and key principles outlined below that will help you to create a positive culture around online activity:
If you are interested in finding out more about keeping children safe online, have a look at the following links: