AUSTRALIAN parents do not know enough about regulating their children's smartphone use, experts warned yesterday, despite growing levels of depression, inattention, and sleep deprivation from excessive screen time among even primary school students.
The call for clear education and guidelines on children's smartphone use followed demands technology giant Apple take a leading role in curbing their dangerous screen addictions, with two shareholders claiming it was "both unrealistic and a poor long-term strategy to ask parents to fight this battle alone".
But while a more collaborative approach could emerge from the debate, educational experts said parents should not rely completely on software controls but set clear boundaries and enforce them.
The latest smartphone debate arose after activist investment group Jana Partners and the California State Teachers' Retirement System, which control more than $2.5 billion in Apple stock, issued an open letter to the company calling for changes to iPhone parental controls.
"We believe there is a clear need for Apple to offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure that young consumers are using your products in an optimal manner," the letter read.
"By doing so, we believe Apple would once again be playing a pioneering role, this time by setting an example about the obligations of technology companies to their youngest customers."
The group said Apple should establish an expert committee to study the issue, provide information to researchers, and create new tools to limit children's use of Apple iPhones, "just as most products are made safer for younger users".
While Apple did not respond to the individual demands, the multibillion-dollar firm issued a statement saying it had "always looked out for kids".
"We take this responsibility very seriously and we are committed to meeting and exceeding our customers' expectations, especially when it comes to protecting kids," the statement read.
But Australian Parents Council president Shelley Hill said regulating children's smartphone use was currently problematic, and a "collaborative" approach was needed from smartphone makers, social media companies, educators, and parents.
She said Australian parents were stuck in a difficult position thanks to antiquated guidelines for smartphone use and increasing technological demands from children and schools.
"The national screen guidelines are very outdated so they aren't very useful for parents," Ms Hill said.
"It is very difficult to know how much is too much screen time."
Australia's national screen time guidelines for children, based on studies from 2012 and a Canadian review last year, recommend less than one hour of exposure to any electronic screen for children aged two to five years, less than two hours for kids aged five to 12 years, and less than two hours of entertainment for children between 13 and 17 years of age.
But a study by the Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne found most Australian children exceeded these recommendations.
Best Programs 4 Kids director Claire Orange said many parents were uncomfortable with technology, and needed more education and help to set healthy digital boundaries for their children.
"We probably have the biggest generational gap in knowledge at the moment between what kids know and what technology parents are comfortable with," Ms Orange said.
"They feel disempowered but really they only need a tiny amount of knowledge to parent in the digital world and make sure their children are safe."
Cyber safety educator Leonie Smith said parents should seek out information on safe smartphone use, and educate themselves on popular social networks, as no software restrictions from Apple could make up for a lack of parental supervision.
"If you rely on these apps too much it can cause a situation where a kid starts to feel like a lab rat," she said. "They need the chance to moderate their own behaviour."
Ms Smith said parents should set smartphone rules for their children before letting them use the devices, should keep phones out of bedrooms until their early teen years, and should keep discussions open and positive.
TOP SMARTPHONE TIPS FOR KIDS
-Keep smartphones out of bedrooms to prevent sleep problems
-Discuss and write down clear guidelines for smartphone use
-Be open to negotiations and short-term trials of new uses
-Consider setting restrictions on Apple and Google app installations
-Reward healthy smartphone use
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