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Is a Smartphone-free Childhood Possible?

Smartphone-free Childhood

My name is Sarah and I’m addicted to my iPhone.

There. I’ve said it. The first thing I do each morning is pick it up. It dominates my thoughts, distracts me from being productive, and the fact that I can be reached on a myriad apps 24 hours a day means I never fully relax.

I waste hours on social media negatively comparing my life to others, I buy things I don’t need and cannot afford because my phone targets it’s advertising just for little old me.

It’s an awful, draining drug which makes me less present and more anxious. Sometimes I’m sure I can feel my brain cells dying as I scroll.

So why you might ask; if having a smartphone is so bad… why do I allow my 11 and 13 year olds to have them? Why did I let them get phones when they were both only nine years old?

Well. As lame as this is going to sound; everyone else let their kid have one.

Yep, that’s right. Even though I know the dangers associated with having phones, even though I’ve seen what it’s done to my brain over the past ten years, even though I hate seeing my children glued to theirs… I allow them to have them because I don’t want them to be left out. I don’t want them to be that weird kid who doesn’t have a phone and whose Mum probably makes them practise their clarinet for two hours a night.

But what if I had just a bit more guts? Is it possible to do things differently with my third child? Or in fact to take the phones (which are surgically attached to my 11 and 13 year olds hands) away?

It wouldn’t just be for the sake of cruelty or wanting to make them social pariahs. Smartphones are highly addictive. Teens and pre-teens spend hours and hours each day watching YouTube and TikTok making themselves highly vulnerable to misinformation, online predators and scams. Smartphones are directly linked to poor mental health and low self-esteem, and the associated social media use has been extensively proven to increase depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal ideation.

Aside from all of this terrifying stuff, there’s just the fact that smartphones so drastically reduce concentration span and the ability to interact. I don’t need a study to confirm that by the way, I’ll just take that from the monosyllabic grunts I have to deal with from my boys when they’re glued to watching the endless drivel they consume on TikTok.

I’ve tried to explain to them that they need to think of their brain like their body. If they fill it with rubbish it’ll get sick; just as your body would if you only fed it sugar. But the addiction already has hold of them you see. They’re as unable to stop watching football drills (set to very irritating music) on YouTube, as I am to stop scrolling through ASOS and putting stuff in my basket that I will never buy.At 11pm. When I really should be asleep.

In the UK, a parent-led movement called Smartphone-Free Childhood is on a mission to protect thousands of children from the dangers and distractions of smartphones. But is there really a way to put this particular genie back in the bottle?

My initial reaction is to say, no. We’re too late. The horse has already bolted.

But the Smartphone Free Childhood campaign does a very good job of highlighting things that used to not only be legal, but normal, socially acceptable.

Smoking on aeroplanes was legal until the late 90’s.

The age of sexual consent in the UK used to be 13.

We couldn’t as a society, or as individuals tolerate either of those things now. We probably find them shocking and disturbing. But somebody somewhere must’ve been the one who put their head above the firing line, raised their voice and said that something had to change. And people probably told them it was too late, that the horse had bolted, so to speak.

So maybe after all, we don’t have to just accept that our children will inevitably get a smartphone and become increasingly addicted. There are other options.Tech firms are only going to continue to make these products/apps/games more attractive, so the onus is on us as parents to intervene and provide an alternative.

One tip I read about which I will definitely be adopting when I get asked the question by my third son when he feels the time has come where he wants a phone.

I know he will start his appeal with ‘But everybody in my class has one!’... this ain’t my first rodeo you see. He will then progress to the argument that he needs a phone for safety, so he can tell me where he is as he starts socialising and going places independently. That’s when I’ll present him with his very own… drum roll please…smartwatch. No big screen which he can mindlessly scroll on, but with the function to make and take calls and send and receive messages.

He might hate me at first for making him a little bit different to his mates. But hopefully this slow taking back of parental control will start to grow… who knows maybe he won’t be the only one without a phone.

The Smartphone-Free Childhood website has loads of interesting resources, tips and advice for both parents, teachers and kids themselves. If you’re concerned about your child's screen time or dependency on their phone, it’s a great first place to start to make some changes.

Sarah Lawton


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