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Parents’ grip slipping on youngest children as four-year-olds surf internet unsupervised

  • The age a child starts using the internet unsupervised has slipped from 11 and a half to just four and a half years

  • More than a third (36%) of parents fear their kids’ social skills will be damaged while 31% worry about the impact on their children’s mental health

  • Over one in ten (15%) think their kids’ digital footprints could affect their career prospects due to ‘oversharing’ or using bad language on social media

  • Almost a fifth (19%) are worried their lack of tech skills could be putting their children at risk – 44% say their kids’ tech expertise outclasses their own

  • Although six in 10 (60%) parents have installed controls on their child’s internet-enabled gadgets, 43% fear these are only fit for purpose for younger kids, not teenagers.

The age children are surfing the internet without adult supervision is dropping, according to new research by Uswitch.com, the independent price comparison and switching service. The average age a child starts using the internet unsupervised has slipped from 11 and a half to just four and a half years old.

Parents whose youngest child is aged one to six years old said unsupervised internet use started at just four and a half years on average. By contrast, parents whose youngest child is 13 to 17 years old said unsupervised access was allowed from 11 and a half.

In spite of this, more than half (51%) of parents admit they are ‘extremely’ or ‘quite’ worried about what their children are getting up to online. Parents of younger children aged one to six years old are most likely to be ‘extremely’ worried (23%) compared to parents of children aged seven to 12 years (10%) and teens aged 13 to 17 years (8%).

Parents are almost as concerned about the impact internet use is having on their children’s mental health (31%) as on their children’s social skills (36%). Almost a quarter (23%) also fear it’ll impact their physical health as kids prioritise internet surfing over the real thing. Around one in seven (15%) worry their offspring’s digital footprints could one day affect their career prospects with future employers.

More than one in 10 (13%) parents of teenagers aged 13-17 believe their child has ‘overshared’ on social media, while 15% say their kids have used inappropriate language on the likes of Twitter and Facebook. More than one in 10 (13%) of parents of teenagers say their child’s internet use has damaged their social skills.

Meanwhile, almost a fifth (19%) of parents are worried their own lack of tech skills could be putting their children at risk. More than four in 10 (44%) say their kids’ tech nous is better than theirs and one in 10 (10%) are self-confessed ‘technophobes’. Around a third (34%) of mums and dads say their skills are good but their kids’ are better.

The vast majority (82%) of parents agree they have the primary responsibility for keeping their children safe online – only 10% believe it’s down to internet service providers.

Although six in 10 (60%) parents claim to have installed controls on their child’s internet-enabled gadgets, there is a lack of confidence in these controls. More than four in 10 (43%) say parental controls available from broadband providers are only fit for purpose for younger kids, not teenagers, while 11% think they are not fit for purpose at all.

Almost four in 10 (38%) parents are worried these controls give them a false sense of security and a fifth (20%) of parents with younger children claim their child, aged between one to six years old, has worked out how to get around them.

In a bid to make their children safer online, almost four in 10 (38%) mums and dads have discussed the dangers of the internet with their kids. Almost of quarter (24%) of parents of teenagers befriended their children on social media so they can watch over them, while 21% have changed their teenagers’ privacy settings so their profile and photos are only viewable by their friends. A few have gone for the stealth tactic – 6% of parents have created fake social media profiles, under an alias, for the same purpose.

However, a quarter of all parents (25%) have put a blanket ban on their kids using social media while 28% encourage their children to go outside and play rather than stay at home in front of a screen. Almost a fifth (19%) of parents restrict their child’s internet use to when they are present, particularly parents of children aged one to six (23%).

Ewan Taylor-Gibson, broadband expert at Uswitch.com, comments: “Children as young as four are potentially being exposed to inappropriate content online because they are using the internet unsupervised.

“As technology evolves, so too do the tools designed to safeguard kids online – but there are evident concerns from mums and dads that these are not up to scratch, or at least not fit to protect teens.

“Although parents agree their children’s safety is primarily their own responsibility, many are not completely confident in their tech abilities and are worried that this puts their children at risk. If you are a concerned parent, then there is a range of information and tools available online to help you protect your child.

“By improving their own tech know how, many parents may feel more confident about their child’s online safety. Understanding what safeguards are available and how these work is a good place to start. Third parties, such as Internet Matters, also offer information and guidance for parents including how to guides and e-safety checklists.”

Uswitch.com’s online safety guide for parents is available here.

Find out how you could save over £1,000 a year with Uswitch here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Lucy Smith

Phone: 020 7148 4663

Email: lucy.smith@uswitch.com

Twitter: @uswitchPR

Notes to editors

Data collected in October 2015 from a survey by 3Gem of 2,012 UK parents of children under the age of 18.

  1. For parents whose youngest child is 1-6, and uses the internet, unsupervised access started at age 4 and a half on average. Parents whose youngest child is 13-17 years allowed unsupervised access from the age of 11 and a half on average.

  2. Parents were asked ‘what are your biggest fears for your child/ren, concerning their online activity?’ Results were: 35.6% said the impact on their social skills, 30.6% said the impact on their mental health, 23.3% said the impact on their physical health, 14.9% said that their social media activity/online footprint will affect their future career prospects’, 33.1% said none of these.

  3. Parents of teens aged 13-17 were asked ‘are you aware of any of your children being affected by any of the following?’ –13.0% said ‘over-sharing on social media’, 14.6% said ‘used inappropriate language on social media’, and 13.1% said ‘I feel their internet use has impacted their social skills’.

  4. Parents were asked ‘are you ever concerned that your own lack of technology skills put your child/ren at risk?’ Results were: yes 19.2%, no 70.5%, don’t know 10.3%.

  5. Parents were asked ‘how would you describe your own tech skills?’ 10.4% said ‘I am a technophobe – very poor with technology and worse than my children’, 34.0% said ‘good tech skills but not as good as my children’, 39.1% said ‘good tech skills and better than my children’, 16.5% said ‘I am a technophile – very good tech skills, better than my children’.

  6. Parents were asked ‘have you ever installed parental controls on your child/ren’s internet enabled devices so they cannot access certain apps or websites?’ Results were: yes 59.9%, no 35.2%, don’t know 4.8%.

  7. Parents were asked ‘do you think that parental controls available from broadband providers are fit for purpose?’ Results were: yes 22.0%, yes, but only for younger children and not teenagers 43.4%, no 11.1%, I don’t know 23.5%.

  8. Parents were asked ‘who has primary responsibility to keep our children safe online?’ - 81.9% said parents, 4.6% said government, 9.5% said internet service providers, 1.4% said schools/teachers, 1.8% said the companies that make games or apps for children, 0.6% said the media.

  9. Parents were asked ‘are you worried about what your child/ren is/are getting up to online?’ Results from all parents were: 12.2% said extremely worried, 38.4% said quite worried, 49.5% said not worried at all. Parents with children aged 1-6 years answered: extremely worried 22.9%, quite worried 35.6%, not worried at all 41.5%. Parents with children aged 7-12 years answered: extremely worried 10.1%, quite worried 43%, not worried at all 46.9%. Parents with children aged 13-17 years answered: extremely worried 7.5%, quite worried 35.6%, not worried at all 56.9%.

  10. Parents were asked ‘do you think parental control software gives you a false sense of security?’ 38.1% said yes, 39.8% said no, 22.1% said don’t know.

  11. Parents with children aged 1-6 years were asked ‘has your child ever worked out how to get around these parental controls?’ 19.8% said yes, 76.7% said no, 3.5% said don’t know.

  12. Parents were asked ‘which of the following things have you done to protect your child/ren online?’ and encouraged to select all that apply. See full results with an age breakdown below:

Q. Which of the following things have you done to protect your child/ren online?All1-6 years old7-12 years old13-17 years old
I have created social media profiles and befriended or followed my child/ren online14.7%8.4%11.0%23.6%
I have created fake social media profiles so I can watch over my child/ren without them knowing6.3%7.7%7.8%3.5%
I have changed my child/ren's privacy settings on social media so their profile and photos are only viewable by their friends15.2%10.7%12.9%21.4%
I don't allow my child/ren to use social media25.0%30.3%37.3%8.2%
I restrict my child/ren's internet use to when I am at home with them to supervise19.4%22.8%22.5%13.6%
I restrict my child/ren's internet use27.0%26.6%34.7%19.7%
I track my child/ren through their smartphones using a tracker app4.7%4.7%4.0%5.5%
I talk to my child/ren about the dangers of the internet37.5%15.2%42.8%51.1%
I encourage my child/ren to go outside and play rather than stay at home online28.2%19.9%34.6%28.7%
I have downloaded apps on my child/ren's phone or tablet that restricts what websites they can use9.3%11.6%8.6%8.2%
I have disabled in-app payments on my child/ren's phone or tablet18.3%14.2%22.5%17.7%
I have read the emails/messages on their phone/tablet (with their knowledge)12.6%3.0%15.3%18.1%
I have read the emails/messages on their phone/tablet (without their knowledge)7.3%2.3%9.0%9.6%
I completely trust my child/ren to be sensible online23.6%5.5%20.8%41.6%
Other2.6%1.8%2.0%3.8%
I don't allow my child/ren to go online8.6%22.3%4.1%1.6%

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