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  1. The Weekend Report
27 April 2024

Inside the fight for smartphone-free childhoods

A rising number of parents want to ban under-16s from owning smartphones: “If it’s impossible for adults to regulate their emotions around phones, how can a 12-year-old?”

By Pippa Bailey

In the early 2010s, something went wrong with adolescent mental health. Rates of depression among American 12- to 17-year-olds rose by more than 150 per cent. The suicide rate for boys aged ten to 14 increased by 91 per cent, for girls by 167 per cent. The picture in the UK is similar: the 2017 National Health Survey found that since the previous poll in 2004, anxiety in 11- to 15-year-olds in England has risen by around 70 per cent. Between 2010 and 2018, the number of 13- to 16-year-olds hospitalised for self-harm increased by 78 per cent for girls and 134 per cent for boys.

The cause of this downward trajectory, according to psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge, and to a growing, parent-led UK campaign, is the smartphone. When the first iPhone went on sale in 2007, there was little cause for concern, Haidt writes in his new book The Anxious Generation, in which he charts what he calls the “Great Rewiring” of childhood. But the following year, the launch of the App Store created an attention market, in which app creators competed to make money from our time. Next, Twitter and Facebook began the digital popularity contest by introducing the “retweet” and the “like” buttons, respectively. By 2010, when the addition of the front-facing camera kick-started the selfie age, the iPhone’s transformation from communication tool to something darker and more complicated was complete.

An oft-quoted statistic – that 97 per cent of children own a mobile phone by the age of 12 – refers to any type of phone, including basic brick or “dumb” phones. But a majority of children in the UK do own a smartphone: 61 per cent of those aged three to 17 in 2021. This makes it difficult for concerned parents to intervene as it risks ostracising their child: “everyone else has one” is a persuasive plea. “It’s almost impossible as a parent to make your child the only one in the class without [a smartphone] because as soon as everyone has it, all the chat and organisation of social events [is] on the phone,” Daisy Greenwell, co-founder of the UK-based Smartphone Free Childhood (SFC) movement, told me over video call from her home in Suffolk. The expectation is that children will have a smartphone by the time they start secondary school, if not before, and this is “at the moment in their lives when they’re so desperate to be the same as their peers, to do the same as their peers”. Greenwell, a journalist, believes that if even a quarter of children in each class had brick phones, they wouldn’t face the same social alienation.

The problem, say smartphone critics, is that large-scale adoption occurred before any scientific studies had been carried out into their effects on children’s health. The evidence now emerging, as laid out in The Anxious Generation, suggests that smartphone use in children is linked with poor mental health outcomes. One recent study of 28,000 young adults worldwide, published by the Washington DC-based Sapien Lab, found that the younger children got their first smartphone, the more likely they were later in life to experience suicidal thoughts, feelings of aggression towards others and a sense of detachment from reality. There are several reasons smartphone use might cause poor mental health among young people, all of which interact with each other.

Smartphones are designed by the smartest minds in Silicon Valley to be addictive, to hold our attention for longer and to keep us coming back for more. Greenwell’s co-founder, Clare Fernyhough, a psychologist who lives in Hampshire, believes young people are uniquely vulnerable to this “rewiring” because their brains aren’t fully developed until their early twenties. Executive function skills, “the child’s growing ability to make plans and… execute those plans” writes Haidt, are largely based in the frontal cortex, “the last part of the brain to rewire during puberty”. The dopamine released every time we receive a notification “affects our brains in the way gambling does”, Fernyhough said. “[Children] are becoming completely wired to be addicted to dopamine hits.”

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The resultant distraction may in part be behind the post-2010 plummet in mental health. Studies have shown that simply having your mobile phone in your pocket reduces cognitive performance, vs having it in another room; this is one of the strongest arguments against allowing smartphones in schools. (New government guidance released in February recommended phones be banned from classrooms – a policy many head teachers had already implemented.) Sleep deprivation can play a role. Teenagers need nine hours of sleep a night, but the proportion who get less than seven has been rising since the mid-2010s, and many correlational studies have found a strong association between high smartphone use and poor sleep.

There is also an “opportunity cost” to technology use more generally: what formative experiences are children missing while they are subsumed by the digital world? While children may use technology to communicate with their friends, Haidt argues that a “phone-based childhood” deprives children of real-life social interaction. Similarly, Fernyhough fears children are missing out on “all the things they should be learning in the real world, having those scrapes… those knocks that teach them resilience”.

Social media, of course, exacerbates the comparison and esteem issues that have long troubled young people, and hosts content promoting eating disorders, self-harm and suicide. Haidt shows that social media is particularly damaging for girls: in the UK, girls who report spending five or more hours a day on social media are three times more likely to be depressed as those who don’t. Greenwell fears the “social anxiety induced by social media apps. We know that age 11-13 is the key age, particularly for girls when they’re figuring out their sense of self, who they are, what’s important to them, and how to value themselves.”

And then there is the content children are exposed to online. Research by the children’s commissioner, Rachel de Souza, revealed that one in ten children have seen pornography by the age of nine, and the average age at which boys and girls first view such content is 13. De Souza has also reported that in a room of 15- and 16-year-olds, three quarters had been sent a video of a beheading. Her office’s “Digital Childhoods” report from 2022 found that almost half of those aged eight to 17 have seen harmful content online, most commonly trolling, followed by sexualised or violent content, which occurred most on TikTok and YouTube, respectively.

Much of this is not unique to smartphones – social media, for example, can be accessed from other devices – but smartphones most easily avoid parental supervision. What ten-year-old would dare access violent pornography on a shared family computer in their living room?

Critics of the smartphone-free movement see Haidt’s and others’ concerns as a moral panic of the sort that often follows the creation of new technology, and may yet prove unfounded: Socrates feared that writing would increase forgetfulness. The evidence the anti-smartphone movement cites, critics say, is often based on self-reporting. The societal shift towards a more open conversation about our emotional states could be encouraging young people to self-diagnose everyday sadness as depression. The studies are also largely correlative, meaning that while they do show a positive correlation between smartphone use and poor mental health outcomes, the former does not necessarily cause the latter. It could be that those with mental health problems use smartphones for distraction, or that both are caused by a different, third variable, such as more permissive parenting. Still, Haidt and his colleagues believe their pessimistic reading of correlational studies, when taken together with longitudinal and experimental studies, is the right one.

Instinctively, many adults will agree: our own experience of smartphone use bears it out. “We both feel that we are addicted to smartphones – and most of us are, probably,” Greenwell said of herself and her husband, Joe Ryrie, who runs a branding agency. “I think my relationship with my smartphone is possibly one of the most damaging parts of my life,” Ryrie added. “But it’s also absolutely normal: I think I have a pretty normal relationship with my smartphone… That’s something we all struggle with, we all feel that pull towards this dopamine-filled world of distraction, every moment or every day. I think that is partly why this [the SFC] has taken off the way it has, because I think all parents know they’ve got a problem. If it’s impossible for us to regulate our emotions and desires around [smartphones], how is a 10-, 12-, 13-year-old going to be able to do that?”

Daisy Greenwell and Clare Fernyhough are 40 and 41, respectively, and have been friends since secondary school. Their children are similar ages – Greenwell’s are four, six and eight, and Fernyhough’s seven and nine – and the two had long shared their own concerns about the decision they knew they would soon have to make. But they were initially reluctant to start a formal, public campaign. “I said to Clare I don’t want to start trying to campaign on this because I don’t want this to be my whole life, and I think it’s too big and we can’t do it,” Greenwell told me. Instead, they decided to set up a WhatsApp group to support each other in sending their children to school without smartphones, expecting that a few others might join; Greenwell posted about the group on Instagram, thinking little of it.

By the next morning, their WhatsApp group was already at capacity, 1,024 members. Unable to accept any more requests to be added to the group, they encouraged members to create their own groups in their communities. There are now more than 70 such groups, and people from other countries have approached them about setting up a movement in their own countries: in Italy, the US, Australia, New Zealand. (Ironically, managing these Smartphone Free Childhood groups has dramatically increased Greenwell, Fernyhough and Ryrie’s own smartphone use.) Greenwell said people post “all sorts” in the groups, “but the overriding emotion people are expressing is: thank God this is here. I thought I was on my own, and I’m not.”

They have experienced some pushback, which Greenwell attributes to this being “a mega-awkward conversation to have… with parents who have already given [their children] a smartphone. It’s really confronting, and it feels like you’re judging their parenting.” But on the whole, Ryrie thinks it “a very rare issue in today’s society that is not particularly polarising, it’s not a culture wars issue, it’s not a left and right thing, it’s not particularly political. It’s quite universal.”

The SFC founders are keen to stress that none of this is the fault of parents, but of tech companies and the governments failing to sufficiently regulate them. “This isn’t an issue that can be solved by parental solidarity alone,” Ryrie said. He believes the Online Safety Act – which will introduce stricter age verification requirements, place a greater duty of care on to social media platforms, and introduce new criminal offences for things such as encouraging others to self-harm – is a positive step but does not go far enough. Legally, the minimum age at which a person can sign up to a social media platform is 13, but even under the new act, the verification process remains vague. In the US, several states’ attempts to require parental consent for teenagers to create accounts have been delayed by legal challenges.

De Souza’s “Digital Childhoods” report found that in the UK, 65 per cent of eight- to 12-year-olds use a social media platform. Even on research, Fernyhough said, it should not be the responsibility of campaigners to prove that smartphones are harmful to children. Rather, “the onus should be on tech companies to show that their products are not… as pharmaceutical companies do [for drugs]”.

Ultimately, the three are agreed that a ban on smartphones for under-16s is “the ultimate endgame”. At 16, Fernyhough said, “when we know that they have more developed executive function, better emotional regulation, then at least they will stand a chance of being able to withstand [smartphones’] addictive nature… When they have had an opportunity to develop the ability to pay attention, to focus, [when they have] more developed critical thinking, then we give them to them. And we use a scaffolding approach, so we start small, and we build up when they’ve shown they can use it.”

Even with a total smartphone ban, children would still be free to use the internet, and to learn how to do so safely, in computer rooms at school and on shared devices at home. But they should not, Ryrie said, have “access to everything, everywhere, all at once, in their pocket”. Smartphones are “amazing pieces of technology that have transformed society. And no one for one second is suggesting that we should ban smartphones, just like no one suggests we should ban cars because some people have crashes. But at the same time, you wouldn’t give the keys to a car to a 13-year-old.”

[See also: Inside Columbia’s campus wars]

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