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Why smartphones bamboozle politicians Is it possible to keep children safe?

(HEATHCLIFF O'MALLEY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)


May 30, 2024   6 mins

The year is 2008. It’s break time, and my twin sister is a library monitor. A swell moves through the playground; packs of children are pulled like magnets to the big bay window of the library, where a note is stuck to the inside pane. All of a sudden, about 100 kids are turning and looking at me. For the note, which my own sister had stuck to that window, contained three explosive words: “Poppy loves Harry”.

Barely anybody I still speak to from primary school remembers that fateful day, and thank god. Yes, I was teased for a week, but generally people forgot that I apparently “loved” another 10-year-old in my class (who was far more popular, hence the scandal). But what if that had happened now? Would videos of my beetroot-red face be plastered across TikTok and Snapchat? Would I ever have lived it down?

My generation was the first for which nudes rocketing around secondary schools, or the masterminding of toxic cyberbullying campaigns, was both commonplace and expected: one memorable Instagram burner account viciously tore into girls in my year, Gossip Girl-style, only for the culprit to eventually be caught out by a bungled double-bluff post. But since the passing of the Online Safety Bill in October, legislators have been taking stock of our saturation in all-consuming tech.

Only last week, the Education Select Committee once again sounded the alarm, reporting that one in four children use their phones in a manner resembling behavioural addiction. Ministers are now debating whether to ban under-16s from owning smartphones altogether — an extreme proposal which 33% of parents nevertheless support. The recommendations could not have come at a better time to circumvent the glacial pace of policymaking: as we await election manifestos, legislation on smartphones may well hitch a ride to becoming a governmental pledge, with the idea holding appeal for both major parties.

If it does appear on a manifesto, it will not be without a hitch. For the Conservatives, it may be tempting to see a ban, alongside the reintroduction of National Service and the phasing out of smoking, as part of a glut of boomer-friendly panic policies, directly mined from the resentments of village-hall coffee morning-goers. But in promoting a ban, the Tories would be pushing an instinctively un-conservative interventionism. For Labour, meanwhile, the unchecked power of Big Tech is an indictment of slack regulation of corporations — tick — but it also curries the least favour among the young, the party’s electoral home. Starmer’s decision to slash the voting age to 16 may backfire in a second-term election if the youngest voters are livid about being denied TikTok for 15 years of their lives.

Yet while the question of smartphone use can easily fall into a political storm drain, ministers should understand that any legislation it throws up is more than an election gambit. Like cigarettes and alcohol, it is fast becoming a public-health issue. In his new blockbuster book The Anxious Generation, Jonathan Haidt drew attention to the “selfie” function on smartphones and its deleterious effect on Gen-Z girls’ self-image, calling Instagram “unsafe at any speed”. But what is it doing to Gen A, the freshest crop of smartphone guinea pigs, born between 2010 and 2025?

My sister has two children, both toddlers. Like many stay-at-home mums, an important part of her day is going to the supermarket. I remember these times myself: me and my twin being plonked into our car seats, then sitting in Costa having a frothy milk while our exhausted mum glugged a 12-shot cappuccino, and finally getting to sit in the small compartment at the front of the trolley while we sailed through the aisles. (My sister, because she was better behaved, got the proper seat.) There was so much to watch and touch and smell; we’d go to the fish bit and grimace at the heads, or snigger in the bra section. Hardly Little House on the Prairie, but now this real-world interactivity seems quaint.

These days, my correspondent tells me, trolley-seats are replete with zombified, glassy-eyed tots glued to Paw Patrol, Bluey or whatever else keeps them quiet. They aren’t babbling — just squealing when their phones or iPads are withheld. Their chauffeur — or “mum” — is often scrolling away herself.

Generation A scares me. And I suspect it may be because they have rarely known the value of being really, really bored. Boredom is such an integral part of childhood. Irritating parents tell us “only boring people get bored”. They expect you to spend an hour on your tod on a rainy Sunday and come up with a Picasso, that having nothing to do is a prerequisite for some incredible creative flourish. This isn’t true, and I don’t want to see your child’s art. But I do wish all children would know the crushing, annihilating boredom of being little with nothing to do, because it counteracts the cult of impulsive self-centredness which tells us that we must be happy and stimulated all the time. You cannot be. As a child, you must sit in excruciating boredom in assemblies, dentists’ waiting rooms, funeral services, MOT garages — so that being dragged around shopping centres or being dumped in a creche with other kids is a relative delight, not an unwelcome interlude to hours and hours of bed-bound scrolling.

We know smartphones are already affecting this. But what of the effects of technologies we know nothing about, which are developing so quickly that legislation can hardly get a look in? A recent thread on X drew attention to a worrying number of AI apps which claim to be able to “delete any clothing” or blend real photos with sexy composites — essentially a deepfake handbook, arming users with airbrushed breasts to append to real images of women or girls you know. “Crushmate” allows you to “chat with the girl of your dreams” who will “accommodate even your wildest requests”. “Talk about any topic with AI stepsister,” promises another, complete with an image undoubtedly compiled from 10,000 porn thumbnails. Why bother finding a real human being to undress, when you can blast your retinas with instantaneous, pornified and forever compliant facsimiles?

Something must clearly be done — but what? The problem with “banning” smartphones outright is that it almost definitely wouldn’t work. Age limits for social-media use, the key element at the heart of the smartphone issue, are almost impossible to enforce, and so easy to circumvent. ID verification techniques — which have been recommended for pornography — are seen as intrusive and risky for data protection.

“The problem with ‘banning’ smartphones outright is that it almost definitely wouldn’t work.”

Besides, there are good arguments against a blanket ban. Ian Russell, whose 14-year-old daughter Molly killed herself in 2017 after viewing suicide content online, wrote in The Guardian last month that he opposed an outright prohibition, calling it “naive”. “This would punish children for the failures of technology companies to build their products responsibly,” he said. As a result, the best the government may do at present is to issue guidelines which strongly recommend. This is already happening on a local level: last week, the headteachers of 20 of the 24 primary schools in St Albans signed a letter addressed to parents to urge them not to buy smartphones for their children until the age of 14.

But if childhood has been one of the first sacrifices on the altar of Big Tech, the “victims” themselves do not want salvation. “Children have told us that being online is fundamental to their lives,” wrote Russell. The NSPCC similarly denounced consultations for leaving children’s voices “glaringly absent”. And when outlets do consult them on the prospect of age restrictions, children express concerns about “controlling” parents infringing on their privacy, or mention easy workarounds like using VPNs. Young people’s knowledge of these routes underscores a fundamental problem with adults imposing such rules on children: their tech literacy is likely to be much higher than that of the legislators themselves.

The only realistic and sensible approach, then, and one which does not appear to trample on civil liberties, is to better regulate the companies cultivating addiction-like behaviours in children, and to approach smartphones like a traditional public-health concern: raising awareness, and putting rules in place so that at least sometimes — and certainly during school — kids are not on their phones.

In February, the government issued guidance on schools’ individual policies on mobile phones, recommending prohibiting use with a firm foreword by Gillian Keegan. But how equally can this be enforced in schools with dramatically varying resources and teachers per pupil? Myleene Klass recently told The Times about volunteering in state schools, passing on her own parenting wisdom to children less fortunate than her own. One of these pearls was that phones must be kept in “magnetically locked pouches” at all times at her children’s private school. That this was spoken of as a novelty suggests that smartphones have taken their place among the many class-markers of modern Britain: a greater conscientiousness about the harms of tech obsession may, like healthy eating, be considered a luxury for those who have the time and money to strictly enforce or to provide satisfying alternatives.

Meanwhile, mental-health problems, like physical illnesses, are increasingly bearing down on the body politic — affecting worklessness, happiness and prosperity. Policy must reflect this, taking into account the clear and present risks of being “too online” to self-image, confidence and social cohesion. Cracking down on platforms’ age-restriction enforcement, limiting the harmful content available on those platforms (something which the Online Safety Bill was, on paper, meant to enact), and raising awareness among parents with something resembling a public information campaign might all help. Parents accept that drinking and excess junk food is bad for children; in time, social media will join these as something to be judiciously introduced, and enjoyed in moderation once the brain is developed.

I pity the children who have the thousand embarrassments of being young, like that day in the playground, reflected back at them by the funhouse mirror of the internet. But aside from electoral brownie points, what do the big parties have to gain by taking this issue seriously? Both main parties have, in the past few days, launched cringe-inducing campaign blitzes on TikTok — one by Labour compares Sunak poorly dribbling a football around some plastic cones with Starmer prancing around a pitch to the Match of the Day theme tune. What is certain is that this may be one of the most difficult policies to get right, and if social media can be a silver bullet for a successful bid for power, politicians are likely to continue to dance to its rhythm — even if on the edge of a volcano.


Poppy Sowerby is an editor and writer covering politics and culture.

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Sisyphus Jones
Sisyphus Jones
19 days ago

Usually the British writers on Unherd will subtly hint at their Britishness with the occasional British slang word, carefully chosen, I assume, so the American readers will understand it. But this writer spilled the British slang like a vat of whatever British people call baked beans. I loved it. She rambles, like a Gen Zer who thinks everyone over 35 is a “Boomer” but I liked the piece, in spite of its general formlessness.

Parents used to be tyrants when it came to stuff that’s dangerous. My dad was a juvenile delinquent who became a successful entrepreneur but he had clear rules. Drive drunk and I’ll kick your a** and take the keys forever. Stuff like that. Clear enough. We have strict phone rules for our daughters. The main one is “when I say put your phone away” it means now. And if you ignore me, you’ll have to beg your mom to stop me from smashing it on the ground. No phones in the car (drivers or passengers), no phones at the dinner table. No phones while walking. You’re on your phone too much, give me your phone. You’ll get it back when your mom wants you to have it. Your phone is my possession. If I ever pick it up and the password has changed, you’ll be texting from a payphone. Remind yourself of that often.

Anyway, parents are afraid to be tyrants. I guess if you weren’t raised by loving, reliable, generous tyrants then you don’t have an innate appreciation for the art form. Parents, take the dang phone away from your kid and give her a shovel. It’s that simple.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
20 days ago

I was the principal of a private school in Japan. We forbade the use of smartphones (or any private phones) during school time, or on the school buses. Parents supported it, kids accepted it. That obviously leaves their private time. Here’s where mum/dad/both get to do some parenting. (One of the parents at my school drowned his son’s phone in a fish tank!).
There’s an awful lot of things that tech companies could do better, and many apps are designed to be addictive (they are, after all, competing with other apps). However, I can’t help feeling that there’s a lot of things the adults around kids could do as individuals before seeking to get the state to throw some more regulation at innovative and productive companies.
Depending on state intervention, or regulation really should be a last resort, and as a practical matter is likely to be too clumsy in the case of smartphones.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
19 days ago

We have seen the pernicious effects of state regulation of personal behaviour in the cause of risk reduction during the covid panic.

State regulation can’t fine tune the particular upsides and downsides of their intervention in the way that well-informed individuals can. Restrictions that may have been beneficial for some medically vulnerable, mostly elderly individuals, were unnecessary and actively harmful for others and widely disregarded where this was possible.

Any broad brush state regulation in respect of smartphones will encounter similar issues. Accurate information regarding the risks together with personal assessment of the specific risks and disadvantage regarding any restrictions on the individual are the way to go. We must all learn responsibility not be dragooned by one size fits all situations regulations.

Chris Whybrow
Chris Whybrow
19 days ago

They have to be banned. It’s less naive to expect that to work than to expect the tech companies to show some decency. Besides, the most recent parents are millennials and Gen Z themselves. They won’t exactly lack for tech literacy.

Matt M
Matt M
19 days ago

I went to a concert recently where all phones had to be put in a one of the magnetically sealed pouches mentioned above. They did it at the entrance, you carried the pouch around with you during the show and it was unlocked when you left. The intention was to stop you recording the concert and posting it online.
It seems like a great solution for schools – in fact I was just looking and it seems that a firm called Yondr is already marketing such pouches to British schools.
I think making this mandatory in all schools is about as far as the government could go on their own.
Any further steps to ban mobile internet or social media for young people would require pressure being brought to bear on the internet giants. That will take a long time and can’t be done unilaterally by HMG. So I would be wary of making too many promises on that score if I was in either party.
But taking mobile phones out of schools would be a good win.

Peter B
Peter B
19 days ago

I don’t find this sort of thing encouraging:
“The recommendations could not have come at a better time to circumvent the glacial pace of policymaking”
The rate of law making in Parliament is higher than ever and we’re unable to enforce even longstanding laws while the desire to introduce new ones (often with some victim’s name tagged on for added sales appeal) keeps growing. The capacity for law enforcement is finite (or declining), yet the number of laws increases exponentially. Madness.
It should be clear that laws – and more government – are not the real answer here. These are primarily social and parental issues. Passing a law is no good if it cannot be enforced – and it will be parents and social norms that do the enforcing. If those are too weak, it’s hopeless.
On the technology side, we may need more control of what is published (the games, etc). But that’s a question of controlling the information and not banning the hardware (the phones).

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
19 days ago

Only last week, the Education Select Committee once again sounded the alarm, reporting that one in four children use their phones in a manner resembling behavioural addiction.
I doubt it’s only one in four and I am certain that this is not limited to children. Every day, one sees adults who cannot walk from their car to whatever building they are entering without their face glued to a screen. In my gym, people spend more time texting, swiping, posting, and scrolling than training, and the results – or lack of – prove that.
Technology can be a wonderful thing but its progress has far surpassed our ability to use it wisely. In the States, proposals to ban smartphones in schools have drawn howls of protest from…..parents. Parents. Who complain about not being able to reach their kids. For what purpose? Your kid is in school. If there is an emergency, contact the front office like people managed to do long before these devices came into being.
Here’s a thought – until someone can buy a smartphone on their own, give them a flip phone, the type that makes and receives phone calls and text messages, not the pocket computers deemed standard. This habit among the young will not end when they reach maturity; by then, it will have been baked into their systems and they will continue doing the same thing. Plenty of adults already do it.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
19 days ago

The smart way to legislate is to allow victims to sue the tech companies for the effect of their product. It can get very expensive for the corporations. This way the government doesn’t have to stay ahead of the corporations to write specific, narrowly focused regulations. The corporations are forced to regulate themselves at almost no cost to the taxpayers.
The example I’m thinking of is print newspapers and magazines and the issue of libel. The papers have to carefully vet everything they publish if they don’t want to constantly be dragged through the courts. A number of them have been driven into bankruptcy by the court orders that were the result of something reckless they printed.
Of course our present crop of politicians (both sides of the Atlantic) could never get their act together to accomplish such a feat.

Point of Information
Point of Information
19 days ago

I agree this should be attempted.

The risk is that the biggest tech companies not only have much deeper pockets to pay lawyers (even just to keep delaying proceedings) than parents, newspapers and, in some cases, governments.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
19 days ago

Yes. This is a problem. But class action suits and jury trials can come up with some fabulous awards. And the bean-counters, who really run the corporations, hate to throw money away!
But you’re probably right.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
19 days ago

The social media companies persuaded our dozy politicians that they were platforms and not publishers. This more than anything else has brought us to where we are. If not for this, there would be legal remedies readily available.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
18 days ago

You can’t stop a flood with a bucket. Human culture has now outstripped human biology and humanity is screwed. How dya like them apples?

Rather Not
Rather Not
19 days ago

Could telcos be encouraged to install small-area jamming devices on school property pro bono?

Point of Information
Point of Information
19 days ago
Reply to  Rather Not

I met a security engineer who is also a dad. He had installed a wifi extender which allowed device-by-device controls – ie. It could have one set of content controls for a kid’s tablet, another for a teenagers laptop or phone and another/none for adults’ devices. This is a great solution unfortunately requires money (not a lot but still out of reach if you’re brassic) and know how.

I thought, if this can be a feature of wifi extenders, why couldn’t ISPs (Virgin, BT, Plusnet) include this function in their standard routers by default? So each time a parent connects a device to their home wifi they get a prompt such as “would you like this device to have content filters for a child aged under 5 / 5-9 / 10-12 / 13-16 / 16-18 years or adult/none?”

Point of Information
Point of Information
19 days ago

“The only realistic and sensible approach, then, and one which does not appear to trample on civil liberties, is to better regulate the companies”.

The proposal is to restrict children’s use of smartphones, not adults’. Typically, children have rights (both human and civil) not “liberties”. These include protection from hazardous substances from medicines and plant fertilisers to alcohol and tobacco, the levels of use of which they are judged too young to make an informed decision about. Also they cannot drive, marry, vote, work, enter a contract or travel on some forms of transport alone.

That this is possible for parents to (entirely) control is also incorrect. Yes, a parent can (and should) choose not to give their toddler or pre-schooler a phone or tablet to stave off boredom. However, once children start school, (Reception, aged 5 in the UK), they are given homework on apps. I refused to sign mine up at this age and was told by a teacher that my kid “wouldn’t be able to participate fully” in class if I continued to refuse. In other schools, apps are used for reading homework rather than books, from the start of Primary School. The use of behavioural tracking apps such as ClassDojo is normal in primary schools – my child’s school signed all children up to one of these without informing parents (using real identity data!) let alone getting consent.

In secondary schools, since Covid, not only are apps used for homework and notices, they are used in class for “brainstorming” and quizzes in maths and science lessons. Children without smartphones are told by the teachers to share with those who have them. I know of one family who didn’t allow their kid a phone: by the time the child got to secondary school it was so ostracised that other kids would dare each other to talk to this child as a joke.

Ofsted also uses Twitter photos and videos to assess schools’ activities, so that kids whose parents refuse to let the school post photos of them on social media are asked to stand aside during activities.

This is a collective action problem which needs to be addressed by 5 groups including government:
1. Government (including enforcement of existing regulation of social media companies);
2. Tech sector including social media companies but also hardware and service providers to develop better child protection settings including device-by-device;
3. Schools (and Ofsted);
4. Parents, who should be made aware of and helped to use parental controls – perhaps when they buy a phone or sign up to an ISP, these should be easy enough for any parent to set up and with no workarounds;
5. Children, who should be given some awareness of the risks of internet use similar to sex ed – “this is how you do it safely”.

Alan Elgey
Alan Elgey
19 days ago

“For the Conservatives, it may be tempting to see a ban, alongside the reintroduction of National Service and the phasing out of smoking, as part of a glut of boomer-friendly panic policies, directly mined from the resentments of village-hall coffee morning-goers.”
What an insulting comment. According to this person (who is she?) and based on her passive-aggressive writing I should find these policies ‘friendly’. Actually I think the reintroduction of National Service, in the way in which this has been publicised is absolutely stupid. On this alone Sunak deserves to lose the election badly.
As for the phasing out of smoking a year at a time, do these politicians even think of how this is going to play out? In a couple of decades time, 35 year olds being able to buy cigarettes, but 34 year olds not? Really? Even from a purely short-term political viewpoint, this was introduced by the hopeless Ardern in New Zealand but is now happily cancelled since she lost the election. Can’t Sunak join the dots? Obviously not.
This (mobile use) is a really serious subject and deserves a better article than provided here. The comments so far have been much better constructed.

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
19 days ago

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