Gap year adventure firm which hosted Prince William bans mobile phones on expeditions

Prince William
Prince William in the village of Tortel, Southern Chile in December 2000 - Toby Melville/PA

An adventure programme which hosted the Prince and Princess of Wales on their gap years has banned mobile phones on expeditions to help lockdown teenagers bond with their peers.

Raleigh International has told young people signing up to volunteer in Costa Rica and South Africa that they will have to survive without a smartphone for 60 days.

The policy was introduced after young people said they craved an escape from social media, and programme managers said volunteers were spending evenings on their phones instead of playing games and socialising with their peers.

Alumni of the programme for 17 to 24-year-olds include Prince William, who completed 10 weeks of voluntary work in Patagonia when he was 18.

His most demanding experience was said to be spending nearly a week in a three-man tent on an isolated beach, where his belongings were drenched by rain. The Princess completed the same programme during her gap year before meeting her future husband at St Andrews University.

Raleigh international volunteers
Volunteers work on sustainable projects and are encouraged to socialise in the evenings

Lucy Constable Fernandez, managing director of Raleigh International, said: “We really recognise that young adults have grown up very differently from 10, 20 years ago – even in the last five years, because of Covid.

“In the post-Covid world of lockdown and social distancing, a lot of young adults report that they find it difficult to have those face-to-face interactions.

“There is increased anxiety. They became so used to being with themselves and their social media circle, and not dealing with real-life social situations, that they would have done if Covid hadn’t happened. We felt that a lot of young people were craving getting away from that constant inflow of information and social pressure which leads to anxiety, stress and feelings of inadequacy.”

Volunteer managers had also noticed that instead of playing cards and silly games in the evenings, young people were “all going off and sitting on their phones”, she said.

Raleigh International trialled the policy in 2023, with around 200 young people taking part in expeditions.

A survey of volunteers found 63 per cent believed their mental health had improved as a result of being without their phone, while 74 per cent said they felt happier without them.

The policy meant they were without digital distractions as they took part in projects including building sustainable food gardens and planting indigenous trees.

Prince William carries a log
Prince William carries a log. The Princess of Wales completed the same programme but the pair did not meet until they went to St Andrews University - Toby Melville/PA

Erin McCrea, a 17-year-old volunteer from Ballyclare, Northern Ireland, said: “I was apprehensive initially at the idea of being without my phone, especially not being able to contact my family and friends. I was so used to having it on me, and I would constantly check it without having a reason to, but after a few days on expedition it felt completely normal and I stopped thinking about my phone altogether.

“I don’t need it. Not having your phone makes you realise that nothing really happens on it. You don’t miss anything at all.”

She added: “I think phones can definitely be harmful long term. Not having my phone has stopped me comparing myself to others and I’ve become more independent. Without it you learn how to rely on yourself and others. There were things I thought I’d never be able to do, but you learn that you’re capable of a lot more than you think.”

Mobile phone bans
Mobile phone bans

“Another benefit is that I don’t waste time on social media. I’m more present within what is happening around me. When I get back home I will try and limit my phone use so I can be more engaged in everything and appreciate my surroundings more.”

Ran into financial difficulties

Raleigh International, formerly a charity, collapsed in 2022 after running into financial difficulties as a result of travel restrictions during the pandemic and cuts in government spending on foreign aid.

It relaunched this year after it was acquired by Impact Travel Group, which oversees a collection of travel brands focused on having a positive cultural and environmental impact.

Notable former volunteers on the programme also include the astronaut Tim Peake.

A United Nations report published in summer 2023 recommended a ban on using phones in schools to improve pupils’ concentration and reduce bullying.

Harriet Byrne, operations coordinator for Raleigh South Africa, said: “When the expedition started, one volunteer wanted to keep their phone and said they were feeling nervous and anxious not having it.

“They were supported by their volunteer manager and over time we saw them become more confident and come out of their shell, interacting with the team and with the community more,” she added.