Children’s access to smartphones: ‘many sleep with them under their pillows’

Schools are increasingly enlisting parents in a battle to minimise children’s exposure to social media

The online world can be a dangerous place for children. But it’s not realistic to expect them to stay offline until they’re 18. Nor does it help prepare them to live in a technology-driven world. So, how can schools – and parents – keep children safe?

Gardaí are investigating the death of a 14-year-old girl last month who may have died after participating in a so-called “aerosol challenge” on the popular (and often addictive) video-sharing TikTok app.

While such deaths are rare, there is growing evidence to suggest a combination of early puberty and being exposed to so much information via social media and online is a big contributory factor in the growing anxiety crisis experienced by children.

The type of content young people have access to online on their phones outside school is especially troubling. Given the availability of misogynistic pornography, the ease with which children can bully each other online, the looming risks of artificial intelligence being able to impersonate us and parents could be forgiven for wanting to confiscate their child’s phone, tablet or games console.


Suprisingly, experts at the forefront of protecting children caution against this type of knee-jerk approach.

“We live in a digital age and there are lots of opportunities with online access through smartphones, tablets and games consoles,” says Alex Cooney, chief executive of CyberSafeKids, a charity dedicated to supporting and empowering children, parents, schools and businesses to navigate the online world in a safe and responsible way.

“Digital literacy skills are beneficial, and important. And if only one or two children don’t have a phone, they may feel – and be – left out, which causes its own problems.”

A recent report by CyberSafeKids found more than 25 per cent of primary schoolchildren (aged eight to 12) have experienced cyberbullying during the last school year and 40 per cent at second level.

Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of teachers are dealing with online safety incidents, while almost a third (31 per cent) of eight to 12 year olds are allowed online whenever they want.

Cooney says online safety for children remains a critical issue that is not being sufficiently addressed in Ireland’s education system or by the social media companies whose platforms are being used.

“Our data shows children are extremely active on social media, often unsupervised, leaving them highly vulnerable to bullying, grooming, and exposure to violent or sexual content,” she says.

Carmel Hume, principal of Presentation Primary School, an all-girls school in Terenure, south Dublin, says the report confirms the findings of her own teachers.

“We were shocked by the number of children who had access to their smartphones in their bedrooms late at night,” she says. “Many slept with phones under their pillows. Negative commentary online has become normalised and the nuances of face-to-face communication and engagements are being lost.”

It is all the more trouble, she says, given the school’s strong emphasis on inclusion, kindness and respect.

“We try to be a bully-free school; there will always be parents who don’t acknowledge a problem, or there will be personality clashes, but for the most part – around 80 per cent – we are successful in that,” Hume says.

When Covid-19 started to drive more smartphone use, Hume began receiving more phone calls and messages from parents about their children being bullied or encountering problems online.

“Children here know that if they are caught using their phone during the school day, it will be taken away, and they don’t know when they will get it back. I said that we cannot deal with what happens outside school. I told the parents that they were the adults and it was up to them to take the phone away and switch it off. But now I have tempered my view.

“The online world has enhanced our lives, but we need to be mindful of the effect that it can have, especially on younger children.”

Problems arise in schools when children find out they have been excluded from an event, or they are targeted with abuse online, Hume says.

These apps are tremendously engaging and designed to hold our attention, and there are so many of them, too

—  Carmel Hume, principal of Presentation Primary School

“One mother said her daughter was afraid to come to school due to messages that had been sent to her the previous night. As an adult, I would not have wanted to come into school after reading something like that about myself either.”

Hume and her colleagues found that children were being absorbed into larger chat groups with hundreds of members, and that they felt they had no control and were afraid to leave the group, or afraid of being implicated in wrongdoing if the chat turned toxic.

“People may ask why parents allow it but, in time terms, this has crept up on us over the past 10 years, and it is a global issue,” Cooney says.

“When it comes to children online, it’s not that parents don’t care about their children or their wellbeing, it’s that they are on the back-foot. These apps are tremendously engaging and designed to hold our attention, and there are so many of them, too. Children need to be equipped, guided and supported, and parents need help to do this.”

So, how can parents protect their children? Both Hume and Cooney advise parents to hold off on giving a child a phone as long as possible, in order to avoid those spiked levels of anxiety. It is happening in some schools already. All eight parents’ associations in Greystones, Co Wicklow, have agreed a voluntary ban on smartphones in primary schools, with a nationwide measure under consideration by Minister for Education Norma Foley.

“The road to this initiative began with a realisation – childhood seems to be getting shorter and shorter,” says Rachel Harper, principal of St Patrick’s National School in Greystones.

“We saw children as young as nine years old requesting smartphones, and it was evident that these children were not emotionally ready to navigate the complexities of these devices and the digital world. The anxieties arising from early exposure to adult content online were becoming palpable, and we knew we had to act.”

It’s a move Hume supports. “If 80 per cent can hold off, that means less pester power and less glamour around phones,” she says.

We hope to reach a point where the most popular apps are those with the best safety record

—  Carmel Hume, principal of Presentation Primary School

Several parents who spoke to The Irish Times say they monitor their children’s phone use and messages. As a result, their children are more careful about what they write and share online, and they’re more likely to talk about anything they see online that upsets or stresses them.

“This is not an invasion of privacy,” says Cooney. “Explain that you are giving them an opportunity and a degree of independence, but that you as a parent need to keep them safe, too...

“It’s important to keep the lines of communication open, so that children know they can come to their parents and get support,” she says.

The case for having phones in schools looks increasingly shaky, meanwhile.

A UN report released over the summer called for a global ban on smartphones in schools. The 2023 Global Education Monitoring Report, from the UN’s education, science and culture agency Unesco, said such technology should be used in class only when it supports learning outcomes.

Mere proximity to a mobile device was found to distract students and to have a negative impact on learning in 14 countries.

Ultimately, Cooney says tech companies need to be held to account, with recent legislation moving in the right direction and the appointment of an online safety commissioner.

“It’s an area where parents do need to actively parent, but it takes time. The education system will need to focus more on digital literacy and online safety. We hope to reach a point where the most popular apps are those with the best safety record,” she adds.

Pupils and phones: in numbers

75% – the number of children who own a smartphone before the age of 12

97% – smartphone ownership among 12-13 year olds at secondary school

93% – the number of 8-12 year-olds with their own smart device

25% – the number of 8-12 year-olds who have experienced cyberbullying

Source: CyberSafeKids report, 2023