Bryony Gordon is a bestselling author, columnist, podcast host, mental health campaigner and now the Telegraph’s Anxiety Aunt, Bryony is also the founder of peer support group Mental Health Mates.
A movement is mounting. Last week, a mother from Suffolk posted on Instagram about a WhatsApp group she had set up with a friend. Parents United for a Smartphone Free Adolescence had only three members when Daisy Greenwell announced it on social media. “I don’t want to give my child something that I know will damage her mental health and make her addicted, but I also know that the pressure to do so if the rest of her class have one will be massive,” she wrote, under a picture of her children playing happily in the woods. “What if we could switch the norm so that in our school, our town, our country, it was an odd choice to give your child a smartphone at 11? What if we could hold off until they’re 14, or 16? The scientific evidence for doing so is massive.”
At the time of writing this, the group has over 1,000 people in it. The demand to join is so large that Greenwell and her friend Clare Fernyhough have had to turn it into almost 50 sub groups: Wales Smartphone Free Childhood, South Yorkshire Smartphone Free Childhood, Fylde Coast Smartphone Free Childhood, and so on and so forth, until no part of the UK is left uncovered, not even the bits that have yet to be given access to decent broadband.
All week, the groups have been pinging with messages from parents quite rightly frustrated at how we have ended up living in a world where one in five toddlers have a smartphone, and over half of eight to 11-year-olds. Parents reminisced about their own phone-free childhoods, when to contact anyone out of the house you had to go to a phone booth, and use the BT card your parents had charged up for you in case of emergencies. That or call the operator and ask them to reverse the charges.
Obviously, I joined my local group immediately. This year, my almost-11-year-old will start secondary school and I have announced with a dramatic flourish that if she wants a smartphone, she can build one herself, out of tin cans and bits of string if needs be. She finds this annoying, but then she is at an age where she finds everything I say annoying, so why back down on this?
“But all my friends will have them and I will be left out,” she moaned last week, when the conversation came up again. “Actually,” I said, waving my iPhone in the air, “there’s at least three other parents of kids in your class who have joined this local WhatsApp group I’m in, which is calling for a ban on smartphones for children. So you won’t be the only person without one.”
She looked at me with the kind of derision she usually reserves for her father when he tries to ruffle her hair and call her “darling heart”. “Mum,” she said, contempt radiating from every pore, “are you seriously trying to tell me that parents are railing against kids having smartphones… in a group on their smartphones?”
She made a good point. Children are sponges, and they are only following our lead. How can we lecture them on the dangers of social media, only to sit slumped on the sofa of an evening scrolling through Instagram? Can we blame them for hankering after their own device, when most adults are so attached to theirs? I know I find it irritating when my husband ignores me because he is too busy reading a thread on X, formerly Twitter, but what must it feel like to be a child, constantly watching your parents stare at the screen nestled in the palm of their hand? The majority of adults wouldn’t dream of lecturing their children about the evils of smoking, while themselves puffing through a packet of Marlboro. And yet we have no such qualms about doing this when it comes to phones and social media.
Gillian Keegan announced in Parliament last year that she would be issuing guidance that phone use should be banned in schools. This is sensible, and right, but ultimately pointless if as parents we don’t address our own use of smartphones and social media at home. We owe it to our children to be locking our iPhones in a drawer at the weekend or during meal times. We talk of safeguarding children, but I don’t see how we can do that if we won’t safeguard family time together and show our kids that we value connection with them over connection to our news feeds and emails.
Some argue that smartphones are vital for a child’s safety when they start coming home from school on their own. But we prioritize connecting with them digitally when they are out of the house over connecting with them physically when they are in it. Let us lead by example. No smartphones for children until they are 16, and no smartphones when we are with them – or at least not visible ones. That way, we might just have a hope of giving them the childhoods they deserve.