We need to calm down about kids and smartphones

No, social-media platforms are not ruining children’s lives.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics UK

We need to chill out about children and smartphones. In the past few weeks alone, access to social media has been blamed for kids becoming depressed, obese, ignorant, victims of sexual abuse and criminally violent. Now Conservative MP Miriam Cates has said that smartphones are doing ‘irreversible damage to children and childhood’. She links social media to surging ‘incidences of anxiety, bullying, self-harm and suicide’. And she has singled out Chinese-owned platform TikTok for its alleged ‘political indoctrination – some might say brainwashing’. This is becoming hysterical. It has to stop.

Childhood is in crisis, we are constantly being told. But whatever the problem, the cause is apparently always smartphones. And the alleged solution is always to ban them or heavily restrict their use. Esther Ghey, mother of murdered teenager Brianna Ghey, wants children to have access to phones without social-media apps and for parents to be notified if their child’s online behaviour triggers concerns. Earlier this month, she warned tech bosses that ‘more children will die without action’. Ian Russell, whose daughter Molly tragically took her own life in 2017, wants more censorship of ‘harmful’ content online. A new WhatsApp campaign group, Parents United for a Smartphone-Free Childhood, launched earlier this month to extensive media coverage.

Everyone now assumes that childhood has been corrupted by social media. Taking away phones, or severely limiting their use, will supposedly allow children to grow up in care-free innocence. But what if this is just not true?

Worry about smartphones is just one in a long line of moral panics about children and their access to new forms of media and technology. Before phones, there was widespread panic about videogames and rap CDs leading to violent behaviour. Go back further and it was television programmes. In 1997, one criminologist argued that even popular family television shows, such as Gladiators and Blind Date, were fuelling a growing addiction to real-life violence, sex and cruelty among children. Before this, people worried that comics were morally harmful to kids.

Two centuries ago, there was panic about children having access to ‘penny dreadfuls’ – cheap, sensational books, often in horror or gothic genres, that were read and passed between friends. One commentator in the 1820s described them as ‘the literature of rascaldom’ and held them responsible for filling prisons.

If we go back further still, right back to the 18th century, there was a huge panic about novels. Fiction was thought to encourage imitation and inculcate harmful ideas. The suicide of the main character in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) was said to have inspired young people to kill themselves in real life.

Novels were also assumed to be addictive. Reading them was said to be a waste of time. Worse still, it was feared they might damage a young person’s eyesight and posture, as well as their morals.

It seems bizarre today that anyone would panic about young people reading novels. Still, across the centuries, many of the concerns – such as wasting time and harming eyesight – remain the same, regardless of the technology.

Other supposed harms have changed over time. In the past there was far more concern about moral licentiousness. It was feared that new media were driving teenagers into inappropriate relationships. Today, concerns focus on threats to mental health, eating disorders and self-harm. We have moved from mostly worrying about how children relate to the outside world to mostly worrying about what goes on in children’s heads. Moral panics, whether about the smartphone or the penny dreadful, tell us more about the preoccupations of adult society than they do about the dangers any new technology poses to kids.

It is interesting that one of the few celebrities to have spoken up in favour of young people having smartphones is Esther Rantzen, the founder of Childline. She argues that vulnerable young people need a phone in order to seek help privately. Tellingly, even in her defence of phones, she still captures the now fashionable view of childhood as a time of trauma, abuse and mental-health struggles.

Most of today’s campaigners assume that phones are the cause of children’s problems. But it is possible they have things back to front. It might just be that children need to use social media to connect with friends and the outside world because adults have taken away so many of their real-life freedoms. As far back as 2013, well before smartphones had become ubiquitous, only 25 per cent of children walked to school alone, compared with 86 per cent in 1971. A 2021 survey reported that most children turn 11 before they are allowed to play outside unsupervised. This trend began with panics about ‘stranger danger’ and then went into overdrive with Covid lockdowns, which kept kids at home and out of school for months on end.

Essentially, young people have been told to stay at home, only for adults to panic when they turn to social media for company. Cates complains that ‘devices are having a detrimental impact on the learning, relationships and overall health of our children’. But this scapegoats technology. In a different climate, children might be too busy exploring the world outside their home, or too absorbed in learning at school, to worry about a phone pinging in their pocket. If children were free to form stronger real-life relationships, or were being absorbed by new knowledge that takes them outside themselves, then their phones would be far easier to ignore.

It is right that schools keep phones out of the classroom so that children can focus on learning. And parents should certainly tell their children to put their phones away whenever they see fit. But a child’s phone use should be a matter for teachers and families, not government ministers or the law.

Adults need to get a grip, stop the smartphone hysteria and inspire children to want to interact with the real world instead.

Joanna Williams is a spiked columnist and a visiting fellow at MCC Budapest.

Picture by: Pexels / Pixabay.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today