I Gave Up My Cell Phone to Show My Teenage Daughters It Was Possible – The Results Were Disastrous

A barrage of pinging WhatsApp messages interrupts my lunchtime dog walk. “Draconian, punitive measures!” says one. “Well, it’s true that smartphones are bad for mental health,” says another. The unofficial “Parents of Year 8” group chat for my daughters’ school goes into overdrive, fueled by the school’s proposed new, stricter phone policy: dumb phones only until Year 10.

Since Jonathan Haidt’s book The fearful generation was published in March and has gone… well, viral. Haidt’s clear-eyed plea to parents to encourage exploration- and play-based, rather than phone-based, childhoods to avoid creating lonely, anxious generations like Gen Z strikes a chord. His “great reprogramming of youth” hypothesis blames the 2010-2015 shift in American teens’ social lives largely to smartphones with constant access to internet-based apps “for the tidal wave of adolescent mental illness that began in the early 2010s.”

Most parents in the WhatsApp group applaud the school’s new policy. My youngest daughter, Georgia, 13, says it’s stupid. “There’s already a smartphone ban at school, so what’s the big deal?” I point out that the kids in question don’t have smartphones at all—at home or at school. Haidt recommends no smartphones or social media until they’re 14 and 16, respectively. “Smartphones aren’t all bad,” she counters. “They have bus apps and MyLocation, which makes me feel safer.”

“Anyway, who bought me my smartphone?” Georgia jokes, adding: “If anyone knows, just ask Ava (her 17-year-old sister who is studying psychology at A-level), children simply follow their parents’ behaviour.” Touché. According to a recent US study by Dr Jason Nagata, published in Pediatric researchthe children of parents who spend a lot of time on their own phones were found to spend 40 minutes more on their phones. Screens being present at mealtimes and in the bedroom were also a negative contributing factor.

“Okay, that’s it,” I declare over dinner, “we’re going phone-free for a week—a smartphone detox.” Ava says, “No way! What if I have to go out on the weekend, pay for stuff, take pictures, take a bus! How can I tell you when I’m coming home?” “That’s easy, we have a curfew and you respect it,” I say, thinking this could be a lot less painful than the current 2am digital negotiations. “Be realistic!” she replies, followed by an acronym too crude to translate.

How about just quitting social media, I ask? Snapchat is essential, Georgia says, as it’s the number one communication tool for teens. And what about the sly time-waster TikTok? “Hmmm, I’d miss that,” says Ava. “TikTok is entertainmentshe explains. It looks like I’m going to be doing this experiment alone.

Day one. Like a heroin addict, I start to “crave” when I wake up, but I crave my phone. One of the first things I usually do after scanning the news headlines is check WhatsApp, Insta, then emails. This morning my partner Damon has my phone and alerts me to a new text message – I open it on my laptop, which feels a bit false.

More inconveniences are to come. On day two, I have to print tickets for a theater visit, borrow Damon’s phone to take photos at a family party, and check my bank and WhatsApp on my laptop. Have I banished my phone only to replace it with an antisocial laptop? I continue to text my mother and Ava about travel logistics and realize that a whole hour has passed. I slam it shut.

Day three, I’m feeling pretty good about consciously disconnecting myself from my phone. But when I go out with the dog, smartphone-free, I’m sad that I can’t listen to Radio 4. “Oh no, what shall “Do you do that?” Damon ribs. “Enjoy the birdsong and the wonders of nature,” I reply. Only last week I had photographed our local heron and posted it on Insta stories. “Live in the moment,” I tell myself. You don’t have to constantly promote your life.

Bethan with her partner and daughters passing the time without her mobile phone

Bethan with her partner and daughters passing the time – without a mobile phone – Heathcliff O’Malley for The Telegraph

Being alone with my thoughts is fine, although there’s plenty to worry about lately, not least my youngest daughter’s mental health following a six-month campaign of bullying that culminated in an offensive hate video sent via Snapchat by a group of girls she barely knew. I pointed out that this wouldn’t have been possible without social media. Georgia applies the twisted logic of a digital native: “Oh no, it’s better because I had the proof and we could do something about it,” she says brightly.

I’m asking for advice on how to moderate your smartphone use as a family. Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology, director of Digital Futures for Children and author of Parenting for a Digital Futurehas a more pragmatic, positive stance than Haidt, advocating for Big Tech regulation and education rather than knee-jerk bans. Don’t impose unrealistic rules, she advises: “Teens really feel the hypocrisy of having a rule that their own parents don’t follow. Instead, ask, what are your goals? What do you value?”

I absolutely value friendship. Particularly as both my daughters have experienced periods of social exclusion. I start to think about our other family values, but then Prof Livingstone says something that really hits home. “Think less about the amount of time spent online and more about how best to protect your child from risk and build their resilience, because one day they will have to protect themselves,” she advises. “It’s about what you can do to make sure that when something bad happens online, they tell you. It’s about making sure they have the confidence that you’re not going to panic, freak out and take the phone away.”

I realize that’s the most important thing for me as a parent, mutual trust and open dialogue with my children. That means being fully present. Georgia confided in me about the bullying and we blocked all perpetrators from her accounts. What’s the best way to raise critical, enlightened users? Definitely through conversations and healthier digital habits.

But I do want to be a better role model. Instead of banquets, I have more family meals around the table. Research shows that this reduces the risk of mental illness. I put my phone in a kitchen drawer when I’m home, out of sight. We set social media time limits for Georgia and me, one hour a day. On day three it worked, Georgia announced she’d only had 45 minutes of screen time that day. She must be feeling even happier – that’s about forging new friendships – but we do more things together when we’re home, in addition to the extracurricular activities she’s always done.

Over the past few days, I’ve been devouring books as if I were on vacation by the pool. Meanwhile, Ava’s phone is still practically glued to her hand. I fear that my eldest daughter, who has been diagnosed with ADHD, is falling into a vicious circle that is worsening the condition and further reducing her ability to concentrate. Haidt cites a Dutch longitudinal study of young people with ADHD that suggests this may be the case. Could Ava’s smartphone be a causal factor? And yet she has a terribly active IRL social life and handles A-Levels well. We have work to do but I’ve learned this week that it’s up to all of us.

Top Tips to Get Your Kids Off Their Phones

  • “Create a family phone drawer to put phones away at certain times. Even having your phone in plain sight fragments your attention and thinking,” says Daisy Greenwell, co-founder of Smartphone Free Childhood.

  • “Create family rules together that make sense for the digital world. Children want flexibility that suits what they are trying to do and they want to be trusted to make judgements,” says Prof. Livingstone.

  • Put a headband on your phone. “It allows you to make calls, but it limits swiping and texting. It’s a visual, physical reminder: Do I really need to do this?” Greenwell says.

  • “Switch to grayscale, turn off notifications, go utility-first with apps you tuck away, archive non-essential WhatsApp groups. Set up a VIP list to allow notifications from work or your partner; and take back control,” Greenwell advises.

  • “Put your family goals first and work backwards from there. Screen time is especially important if it is excessive,” says Prof Livingstone.

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