Calls For ‘Smartphone Free’ Childhood Grow In UK

Many adults fear being asked by their children, “When can I get a smartphone?” However, as concerns increase about the impact of the gadgets on young minds, some UK parents are pushing back.

Daisy Greenwell, a mother of three, is leading the challenge after a simple conversation at the school gate inspired her to take action.

Greenwell, who had been discussing the problem privately with a close friend for some time, was informed by another mother that her 11-year-old son, as well as one-third of the boy’s classmates, already owned a smartphone.

“This conversation has filled me with terror. I don’t want to give my child something that I know will damage her mental health and make her addicted,” she wrote on Instagram.

“But I also know that the pressure to do so, if the rest of her class have one, will be massive,” added the journalist from Woodbridge, eastern England.

In February, a tweet sparked widespread concern among parents that giving their children access to a gadget could expose them to predators, online bullying, social pressure, and potentially hazardous content.

Greenwell and her friend Clare Reynolds have started the Parents United for a Smartphone-Free Childhood initiative.

Academic research, paired with parents’ own experiences, has created anxiety about a child’s request for a phone.

At the same time, parents say they feel powerless to reject, as phones for school-aged children have been “normalised,” ostensibly for safety reasons.


UK schools minister Damian Hinds told a parliamentary committee recently almost all pupils now have a mobile phone around the age of 11 or 12.

“There seems to be something of a rite of passage about that,” he told MPs, adding that some children got one “quite a lot earlier”.

After Greenwell finally broached the subject on Instagram, a WhatsApp group she set up to discuss the issue with Reynolds quickly filled with like-minded parents relieved that others felt the same way.

Then the reaction just “snowballed”, she added.

Greenwell said there is now a group in every area of the country as well as a few working groups for people with professional expertise on the issue.

“We’ve got an education one which has got lots of headteachers from across the country,” she added.

“They are talking about how we can roll this out, how we can help parents and schools to collaborate and stop people from getting a smartphone at such a young age.”

Other working groups are full of people who “are really knowledgeable and experienced in their fields”, including an advocacy group to talk about policy change.

Those signed up include a tech company policy director and a staffer at Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s 10 Downing Street office.

“They’re people who really, really know the lie of the land,” she said.

Childhood rewired 

Many of the parents’ concerns are repeated in US social scientist Jonathan Haidt’s recently published book “The Anxious Generation”.

In it, Haidt claims that the “complete transformation of childhood that took place between 2010 and 2015” as smartphones really took off has led to a “great rewiring of childhood”.

He relates the emergence of “phone-based childhood,” constant adult monitoring, and the loss of “free play” to increases in mental illness among young people.

“Things were getting better and better in mental health and then everything goes haywire in 2013…. we have to rip the smartphone out of the lives of kids,” he went on to say.

According to American College Health Association numbers cited by Haidt, since 2010, the percentage of US students diagnosed with anxiety has increased by 134%, while the number diagnosed with depression has increased by 104%.

Haidt claims that a similar picture has evolved in all major English-speaking countries, as well as many other European countries.

He believes that no smartphone or social media should be used before the age of 16.

Crucially, he argues, parents must work together to avoid giving in when a child “breaks our heart” by telling us they are excluded from their friend group because they are the only one without a phone.

“These things are hard to do as one parent. But if we all do it together — if even half of us do it together — then it becomes much easier for our kids,” he said.

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