Can the dream of smartphone-free childhood ever come true?

Generation iPhone: children are increasingly being raised by smartphones and tablets (ES composite )
Generation iPhone: children are increasingly being raised by smartphones and tablets (ES composite )

Just two months ago, Daisy Greenwell reached a point at which she had to decide: would she give her eight-year-old daughter a smartphone, or make her “the weird one” without a mobile? “I thought this Wild West internet problem would be sorted by the time she got to this age,” Greenwell says. “And suddenly I realised her classmates had smartphones. We don’t want to get her one and I didn’t know what to do about it.”

Greenwell is not alone. A London headteacher this week announced plans to introduce a 12-hour school day in a bid to tackle pupils’ smartphone addiction. A poll last month suggested the overwhelming majority of parents back a ban on smartphones for under-16s. And 83 per cent of people surveyed by Parentkind felt that smartphone use was harmful to children and young people.

“I kept talking to people, asking how they feel about it and everyone said the same thing: there’s basically no choice, I had to get her a phone,” says Greenwell, 40, a journalist at Positive News. The peer pressure once one classmate has a phone is so strong that you’re almost opting to make your child weird if you don’t allow them to join in. “So, we’re all doing this,” says Greenwell, “but nobody wants to do it? It’s crazy.”

So she and a friend, psychologist Clare Fernyhough, decided to start a WhatsApp group for concerned parents, “thinking it probably would just be the two of us”. But when Greenwell posted a link to the group on social media, she found hundreds of others were similarly distraught. With the likes of BBC broadcaster Emma Barnett reposting the campaign, upwards of 1,000 people joined the WhatsApp group almost overnight. Having hit their limit on the group, they asked people to start their own regional communities, and the Phone-Free Childhood network began. “On day two, Scotland popped up and Cornwall” Greenwell says.

Daisy Greenwell, founder of Smartphone Free Childhood, and her husband Joe Ryrie (Alastair Bartlett, Tilt Shift Creative)
Daisy Greenwell, founder of Smartphone Free Childhood, and her husband Joe Ryrie (Alastair Bartlett, Tilt Shift Creative)

As of 1998, it’s been enshrined in law that the age of internet adulthood — when you can freely browse, download apps and have your data collected and used without parental consent — is 13 years old. There is no youngest age at which you can buy a child a phone. While anecdotal evidence suggests social media exposure in adolescence is causing an uptick in anxiety and mental health struggles for Gen Z, there are now warnings that it is also impacting eyesight and future life chances.

With the youngest children being being raised by smartphones and tablets as time-poor parents strive to work and live off their own devices, the time to act is now, thinks Greenwell, who says momentum for change is growing. Although for different reasons (potential espionage), the US government has this week moved closer to forcing Chinese app TikTok to change ownership, or be banned from operating. And WhatsApp recently lowered its age of use from 16 to 13. “It seems like we’ve reached a tipping point,” says Greenwell. Last month, she and Fernyhough did a talk online with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose book The Anxious Generation was published last month. “During the writing of it, he was realising [children’s absorption in smartphones and social media] had become a huge problem. But he’s confident we could fix it.”

Greenwell was partly inspired by reading a piece in Spanish newspaper El Pais about an action group taking on the new status quo. “I think people are angry, and they’re realising how companies are taking the data from our children and selling it for billions.” Greenwell feels that while we may not be able to get the genie back in the bottle, there’s always something we can do and lots of examples of regulations being brought in to protect people, we just need the collective resolve to do it. Through the Phone-Free Childhood network, Greenwell is hearing of more and more disturbing stories. “One of our group is a GP: she had a child in her surgery yesterday who has PTSD because of this violent porn that was sent to him on WhatsApp. He’s eight.”

So what is the solution? “We have so much safeguarding set up in schools, but paedophiles aren’t in the playground — they’re on the internet, preying on kids via social media where there’s no safeguarding whatsoever.” She adds: “We are getting angry and talking to everyone and talking to our MP… If we can get some proper legislative change — things like getting the tech companies to even enforce their own age limits to stop 40 per cent of under-13s who are on social media — that would be a massive success.”

For now, Greenwell’s daughter isn’t putting pressure on her parents to get a smartphone, but she is intrigued at how “everything in the house has suddenly gone mad, and it’s like a tip”, laughs Greenwell, who also has children aged two and four. “She said to me in the car this morning, ‘It’s a bit ironic you’re doing this mum, you’re on the phone the whole time’.”