‘I refused to give my child a smartphone and got bullied by other parents’


If you’d asked me two years ago if I’d give my son a smartphone when he reached secondary school age, I’d have probably said yes. Many of the older children in his school walk out the gate holding an iPhone: an 11-year-old with a smartphone had become a normal image in my mind.

But then, aged 10, he persuaded me to let him watch YouTube and I realised that I was going to have to take control of what he was watching online. As Clare Reynolds, psychologist and co-founder of the campaign The Smartphone Free Childhood says, “The internet is a gateway to pornography, bullying, grooming and all sorts of harmful content.” Surely the obvious way to protect my child from this is not to hand him a smartphone at all?

Yet the peer pressure is intense. My son is in the nine per cent of 11-year-olds who do not own a phone. According to Ofcom, half of nine-year-olds own one, which means his brother, who is nine going on ten, will presumably be asking for one soon.

It wouldn’t even be out of the question to give one to my three-year-old: a fifth of three to four-year-olds in the UK have a smartphone. While Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan admits that she wouldn’t give her nine-year-old child a phone, she concedes that they’re very hard to resist: “Phones also have a great utility. Being able to contact the child … from a safety point of view, it’s not all negative,” she said, as the government announced plans to allow schools to ban smartphones.

I’ve never been a particularly restrictive parent – my parents didn’t ration television or computer games and I think I turned out okay – but with smartphones we are dealing with a different beast. The negatives seem to outweigh the benefits: they’ve been directly linked to poor mental health and low self-esteem. According to Reynolds, they’re changing the way children’s brains develop, fundamentally affecting their ability to concentrate.

“Even harmless content isn’t harmless,” she says. “Time spent on a device is time not spent with other children; playing, exploring, interacting and developing vital social skills.”

Social media has been proven to increase self-harm and suicidal tendencies amongst adolescents and can inspire violence: the two teenagers charged with murdering Brianna Ghey were known to watch violent Youtube videos.

Brianna’s mother, Esther Ghey, is pushing for age-specific phones for under 16s that would not have access to social media apps. She would like these devices to be linked to parents’ phones via an app that alerts them if the child is searching for inappropriate or illegal terms. There are currently many tools available to enable parent supervision but they’re underused and children often find a way around them.

In a recent poll, 83 per cent of parents said they believed smartphones should be banned for under 16s. The Smartphone Free Childhood campaign, which encourages parents to resist buying their child a smartphone before they’re 14 and instead giving them a brick phone without access to the internet or a camera, has amassed nearly 14,000 followers.

“It’s a conversation we were all waiting to have,” says co-founder and journalist, Daisy Greenwell. “Parents across the country are desperate to find solidarity in resisting the grip of the smartphone.”

‘A smartphone seemed such an unnecessary pressure and responsibility’


My husband and I debated hard whether to give our eldest son, William, a smartphone when he started secondary school and eventually decided not to: he could have an old fashioned brick phone instead.

While he accepted our choice without question, other mothers at school bullied me about it. They said: “Maria, you’re depriving him. He’s not going to make friends; he won’t know where he’s supposed to be.”

It rattled me. I went back to my husband and we went over it again but still came up with the same answer. I’d always seen mobile phones as a breach of freedom rather than liberation and was the last of my friends to get one. I only swapped my Nokia for a smartphone in 2018 and never used to be on Facebook or WhatsApp.

I was surprised when William turned 11 and his friends started getting smartphones; it seemed such an unnecessary pressure and responsibility. But we did want him to be able to contact us, simply for his own safety: a brick phone for text messages and phone calls seemed the perfect compromise.

He was embarrassed at first but when he realised that no one really cared, he got over it. I think I felt the pressure more than he did during those first few months. I also worried that I might have held him back by never giving him access to a computer or iPad but his IT teacher told me that despite never using Google, his computational thinking skills were excellent. He could think through a problem maturely and he was confident about asking for help. This inspired me that I was doing the right thing: without devices at home, the children were creative in their spare time; they learnt to cook and they became critical thinkers. Our children were growing up the way we wanted them to grow up.

Once Will reached the age of 15, we gave him a smartphone and it was the same for our eldest daughter. Personally, I could have waited until they were 18 but we figured that it’s better they start using them while we’re still around to support them. They can make mistakes, and we can talk about it.

We have certain smartphone rules that we all respect. At 8pm all of our phones have to be put on charge in the living room and then we carry on our evening without interruption. The children can do what they like – study, do their hair, watch television – but they mustn’t be on their phones. We also don’t allow phones at mealtimes. Our youngest daughter still has a brick phone although she doesn’t tend to use it: she emails us if she wants collecting at a different time or calls on one of her friend’s phones.

I fully support the Smartphone Free Childhood campaign to delay giving our children a smartphone until at least 14. But first, our generation of parents need to be educated as to why this must happen. Those same parents who bullied me would argue that a brick phone would cost them more money in text messages or that their children wouldn’t be able to use apps for their homework.

I used to be a teacher and I saw for myself how some young children don’t have the resilience to handle disappointment and delayed reward; we are harming them by giving phones to them too early. A smartphone can’t help with life decisions; a child deserves to have the headspace to grow into who they are.

‘I didn’t miss out by not having a smart phone’

William*, 17

I didn’t show my Nokia brick phone around, so most of my friends didn’t know I had it. I didn’t mind that I wasn’t allowed a smartphone, though. It was fine. I didn’t miss out on much at all, or at least I don’t think I did, although I guess I was left out of online socialising in the evenings after school but it mostly revolved around video games, which I didn’t play.

I imagined I’d be on my smartphone all the time when I finally got one aged 15. But it was actually the opposite. By that stage I was allowed an hour of video gaming on an iPad and I found I gamed less once I got my phone. My parents restricted certain apps: I was only allowed WhatsApp at first, and not Snapchat and Tiktok, and then they lifted the restrictions gradually as I got older, which worked well.

If I have children one day, I’ll want to educate them about the dangers of smartphones from an early age and I’d definitely restrict their smartphone usage, particularly when they’re 10 or 11. I’d also be very careful about which apps they have on their phone: you hear about bad stuff happening online and you can control this by restricting certain apps.

I think Michelle Donelan, the technology secretary, is wise to say she wouldn’t buy a smartphone for a nine-year-old. The norm should be that children are smartphone free.

*Some names have been changed