Meet The Parents Uniting For A Smartphone-Free Childhood

As schools get new powers to ban mobile phones, Daisy Greenwell explains why change can also come from parents 

Daisy Greenwell and husband Joe Ryrie

by grazia |
Updated on

Ten days ago, after a coffee with a mum in my 8-year-old daughter’s class where she talked about getting her child a smartphone, I texted my friend Clare Fernyhough in a panic: ‘Shall we do this?’

Her answer was an emphatic yes. We both have daughters - mine is 8, hers is 9 - and the realisation they are on the cusp of entering the world of smartphones feels bizarre and terrifying.

This week, it was announced that mobile phones will be banned in schools in England under new guidance that will allow teachers more power to avoid the disruption caused by smartphones in schools.

In Britain today, 55% of 8-11 year olds own a mobile phone, while 97% of 12-year-olds do. The pressure to get your child a phone is huge, which generally happens in years 5 or 6, which are the final primary school years before they head to secondary school. It’s around this time that tweens shift much of their social interaction online, including the organising of meet ups, so a child without a phone will probably feel like they're missing out.

Nobody wants their kid to feel ostracised, especially because of a parenting decision you’ve made that goes against the grain and withholds something they desperately want to fit in. But on the other hand, handing your child a direct line into a world of online bullying, porn, grooming, and the anxiety that comes with scrolling and social media, feels equally unappealing. And unlike a decade ago when smartphones first became ubiquitous, the scientific evidence is now pretty clear – the younger a child is when they get a mobile phone, the higher their incidence of mental illness.

It was this feeling of being on a travelator of doom with everybody else, all the while pretending everything is fine, that led Clare and I to set up the movement Parents United for a Smartphone Free Childhood on WhatsApp. We wanted to feel that we weren’t alone, and to empower each other to hold off on something we knew in our hearts wasn’t right, even if society said otherwise.

For the first day, it was just the two of us, mostly silent. Then, in a fit of Tiger Mum fervour, I posted on Instagram about how I felt, inviting anybody else who felt the same to join us, including a link to the WhatsApp group. Then it was the kid’s bedtime, so I left my phone downstairs and got on with the nightly task of wrestling my three children into pyjamas and bed.

When I got back downstairs, it had gone bananas. Hundreds of people had liked and shared the post, and hundreds more had joined our WhatsApp group, which was now engaged in an impassioned discussion about the weirdness of a world that suggests we give our kids the most powerful, addictive technology on earth, no questions asked.

Woman’s Hour presenter Emma Barnett shared it and messaged me to discuss her own fears for her kids. The Telegraph columnist Bryony Gordon posted: ‘I want to be part of this Daisy! My daughter will go to secondary school this year and I’m holding off giving her a phone!’ and joined the group. Carrie Johnson pitched in by saying, ‘love this and totally agree’, and asking how she could help. While the actress Sophie Winkleman got in touch to express her support and offer guidance. It was a surreal evening on my sofa in Suffolk.

By the next night, the WhatsApp group had reached the limit of 1,000 people, so we turned it into a WhatsApp community, which enables more people to join, and invited everyone to start their own regional groups. Watching these groups pop up before my eyes, from East London to Somerset, Scotland to Kent, was a magical moment. Far from being alone, there were thousands of people across the country who passionately felt the same way as we did. It felt like a dam had burst, and that this was a conversation that had been waiting to happen.

Thousands of people got in touch offering their help, and Clare and I began trying to figure out how best to harness this momentum whilst juggling our day jobs. Should we join Esther Ghey, the mother of the murdered teenager Brianna Ghey, in her mission to ban smartphones for under-16s? Should we start a petition? Should we launch a parent’s pact to enable each other to hold off on getting our children a smartphone?

So many ideas were swirling, but we realised that there are already amazing organisations, such as Delay Smartphones, who have spent years working on a parent pledge. We’re all working for the same cause, so there’s no point in replicating each other’s work.

The ultimate sweet spot for us is in getting a group of parents in your child’s class to agree not to get smartphones, which eliminates the peer pressure. We realised building hyper-local communities via WhatsApp, encouraging parents to start this awkward conversation with each other, is where we can have the most impact. The class WhatsApp feels like the ultimate frontier. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being criticised for the way they’re raising their child, so a compassionate, non-judgemental and collaborative approach is key.

Ten days in and 5,000 people have joined our WhatsApp groups, and we’re encouraging them to start setting up Smartphone Free Childhood groups in their schools, which are popping up across the country. If people can find each other and start a conversation between themselves and their schools about this problem, then change can happen. Like at Greystones in County Wicklow, Ireland, where parents came together to implement a town-wide ‘no-smartphone code’ in primary schools last May. Six months later, Norma Foley, the Minister for Education of Ireland, unveiled new guidance encouraging all primary schools in Ireland to consult parents about the introduction of voluntary smartphone bans.

This sort of change isn’t going to come from the giant corporations who are making so much money from all our children clicking and scrolling, it’s going to come from the ground up. It’s up to us. If you too feel like childhood is too short to be wasted on a smartphone, then join us. Instagram @smartphonefreechildhood.

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Pictured: Daisy Greenwell and her husband Joe Ryrie by Alistair Bartlett.

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