Life & Culture

Smartphone ban: Meet the north London parents shunning devices for their children

In north London, parents at a Jewish primary school are calling for smartphone-free childhoods


Emma Ross, pictured with her three sons, heads up Eden Primary's Smartphone Free Childhood Group (Photo: Emma Ross)

It’s going to be like smoking back in the day,” says Talya Ressel. “I worry that we’re going to wake up in ten years and say, ‘How could we have let our children go on smartphones or social media, how could we have given them that unfettered access?’”

A psychotherapist who has worked with families for many years, Ressel is backing the burgeoning movement of parents wanting to ban their children from owning smartphones until they are 14 and accessing social media before 16.

Launched by two mothers, Smartphone Free Childhood has spread like wildfire with a WhatsApp group joined by thousands that has since splintered into local ones, and individual schools. And in north London, the Jewish Eden Primary is blazing the trail.

An overwhelming 97 per cent of 12-year-olds in Britain have a smartphone, and ample research shows that these highly addictive devices are linked to the epidemic rise in teenage anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide. In his new book The Anxious Generation, leading American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt warns of the changing nature of childhood and the rise of mental illness since smartphones were popularised in 2010.

It also highlights a 139 per cent increase in anxiety diagnoses among American 18 to 25-year-olds; that 40 per cent of British teenage girls in the UK who spend five hours or more on social media per day have been diagnosed as clinically depressed; the tripled rate of self-harm among young US adolescents; and that suicide rates among ten to 14-year-old US girls and boys have increased by 167 per cent and 92 per cent respectively.  It is, in short, not hard to see why parents are opting out before it’s too late.

The damage has been observed by Bronya Gorney, a north London GP with a child at Eden. “I’m seeing a tsunami of violent mental distress in children and adolescents that I’ve never experienced before in my professional career of 20 years,” says Gorney. And she’s far from alone. “We’re all seeing unprecedented levels of body dysmorphia, self-harm, and general unhappiness.”

Faced with countless teenagers who are unable to leave the house to go to school, unable to navigate friendships, and unable, even, to get out of bed and shower, Gorney says it’s now “uncommon” for her to see a child over the age of nine who is happy.

“Clinically I’m seeing a much higher proportion of deeply unhappy teenagers. And it’s no coincidence that this has happened at the same time as the internet — we have strong evidence base that shows its impact on our mental health.”

However, the issue lies not in technology, which is an inevitable part of modern life, but in the apps that are on our phones and the way that children can access harmful content on the internet. This includes porn — which a third of 11-year-olds have encountered online — and horror movie-type footage.

In addition, 46 per cent of US teens are online almost constantly, and that unlimited use also exposes them to grooming, and cyber bullying, which tragically claimed the life of Mia Janin, a 14-year-old JFS pupil, in 2021.

“Professionally, I am incredibly concerned,” says Ressel. “If I thought it was viable to ban them, I would love that. I can see the damage they’re doing.”

Ressel works with Jewish teenagers who, since October 7, have been exposed to “vile” antisemitic content and graphic images on social media through their smartphone. The problem, she says, is that children lack the skills and the maturity to navigate the material. “So they either have to desensitise themselves, which means they lose compassion, or they freak out and their anxiety rockets. But they don’t want to share any of this with their parents for fear that the phone will get taken away.”

Then there’s the endless scrolling through images and comparing themselves to others’ false happy narratives, because children and adolescents are developmentally wired to want to fit in and lack the necessary capacity for perspective. Social media’s focus on imagery and materialism leads to poor self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy which, in turn, leads to complicated relationships with food. Gorney thinks that more than half of teenagers have some level of eating disorder. And, in their efforts to curate the perfect image, children are distracted from living in the moment.

“They can take 50 to 100 photos to produce one selfie,” says Ressel. “It becomes an unhealthy obsession with image. We now have kids as young as eight obsessing over skincare, and it’s purely TikTok-driven.”

She also recognises that children are missing opportunities for downtime and breaks from social pressures when at home because phones mean they can constantly see what everybody else is doing. Meanwhile, documenting every moment from their bedroom is isolating and doesn’t allow them to read facial expressions and learn social skills.

For most young teenagers it’s too late to delay social media, but the hope for those of us with primary-aged children is that we can empower enough parents to make it socially acceptable to hold back the smartphone for a few years.

Emma Ross, mother to three boys aged four to nine, is spearheading Eden’s Smartphone Free Childhood group. “Cyberbullying and the social problems are really worrying. In addition, there are so many things in life that we don’t allow our children to do when they’re young so why would we hand over this device that gives them access to everything from pornography to violence and hate speech. I wouldn’t give my 12-year-old a porn magazine. Why would I give them a phone that allows them to see all of that and worse?”

The reason so many parents do hand over phones is, she says, because they simply get swept along. But the more parents who buck the trend, the easier it will be for those who follow in their wake not to. And children without the devices won’t be in the minority and excluded for it.

“We need more of us to take a stand,” says Ross. “Parents need to have the confidence to say “no” so that a new social norm is created and the issue of peer pressure disappears. We are there to support each other and share challenges that arise as we go through it.”

As a Forest School teacher in training, Ross feels strongly about children spending time outdoors and interacting face-to-face. “My boys absolutely love playing marble runs.

“They spend hours with their friends constructing these things, lost in a world of imagination and play and communication. It’s incomparable to what happens when they go onto a screen.”

As for those parents who worry about their children being contactable on their journeys to and from school, the movement recommends the humble brick phone for calls and text messaging.

What’s more, scientific research shows that those navigating a route by memory rather than relying on Google Maps can quite literally develop bigger brains.

The no-smartphone movement is spreading to other Jewish schools, too. Mother-of-three Carly Lewisohn experienced the impact of digital devices on wellbeing in her work as a video producer. As a result, she set up a support group with workshops to teach parents how to help their children have a healthy relationship with tech. And at Wolfson Hillel, where she sends her daughters aged six and eight, she is launching a campaign for parents to make a pledge to delay smartphones.

“I can’t help but worry about the potential for their sense of self, values and goals to be compromised, that their hobbies and passions may be replaced by mindless consumption, and their self-worth defined by followers and likes. I worry about their attention being diverted from what truly matters.”

Mindful that media apps were designed to keep people scrolling for as long as possible, and not with children in mind, Lewisohn warns that electronic communication robs children of emotional connection and the chance to develop empathy, conflict resolution and social skills.

Last summer, she observed the consequences of this first hand at a bar mitzvah where some 50 children sat next to each other, their heads buried in their devices, while the celebration buzzed around them. “It was a surreal moment, straight out of Black Mirror,” she laments. “We are failing an entire generation of children.”

She says it’s imperative that we unite as a community to help prevent peer pressure.

“I’ve always been amazed by the strength of the Jewish community when it comes to rallying behind important causes.

“Surely we can all agree that our children deserve to be protected and navigate their digital lives safely in a way which supports their emotional, developmental social and physical wellbeing.”

But not everyone thinks an outright ban is the answer.

Amelia Lasserson, an early years teacher with one child at Eden Primary and a 13-year-old who already has a smartphone, is concerned that if parents make inflexible decisions their children find a way around them, with potentially bigger consequences.

A child with a secret Snapchat account, for example, is less likely to tell their parent when there’s a problem.

“It’s easy to say ‘no, I’ve made up my mind’. But I worry that relationships between young teenagers and their parents could be fractured,” says Lasserson. “The most important thing is to keep communication going so that children feel they’re really listened to, with the possibility of compromise and negotiation. If you’re not respectful and empathetic with children, then you’re not teaching respectful empathy.”

And while she stresses the importance of monitoring your child’s internet usage, she also believes the practicalities of an outright ban would be as difficult as insisting on “total kashrut and Shabbat observance when putting your child in a school in rural Sussex”.

Last month, the Department for Education published guidance for headteachers on how to ban the use of phones in schools.

Eden’s headteacher Helen Graff says she is happy to support the campaign, having observed some parents’ fear that if they don’t have a phone, their child will be the odd one out, or left out.

“A lot of parents seem to think it is a must that their child gets a smartphone when they go to secondary school, even if they don’t agree.

“Parents coming together to decide collectively to resist the ‘pester power’ is a good idea.

“This campaign is really to say they don’t need a smartphone until they’re old enough to cope with a smartphone. I feel that the longer parents can hold off from getting a smartphone for their child, the better.”

There is no doubt that a growing number of parents are committed to reversing the trend – and that standing together as a community could be key.

In the words of Gorney: “If we wait for everyone else to do something, we’re going to fail our children the way that the current 11 to 25-year-olds have been failed.

“We need as a grassroots parents community to create the change that we want to see.”

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