‘They give us liberty with less anxiety’: A teenager, a parent and a teacher on smartphones for under-14s

<span>Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare</span>
Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare

Cicely Higham, 16, student: why disable the smoke alarm instead of putting out the fire?

I wouldn’t mind if it was only in St Albans that headteachers want to create a smartphone-free city for under-14s. I can take reasonable steps not to live there. But banning phones for young people is raised all the time, and it’s the lazy way out. There are noticeable negative effects of extensive internet use: I’m 16, and in the middle of GCSEs – if I could get back all the revision time I’ve lost on TikTok, believe me, I would.

But I don’t believe the downsides outweigh the good. Phones have allowed my generation liberty with less anxiety. It is known, unfortunately, that teenage girls face a lot of street harassment. A phone’s primary function is contact with other people, and when you are a teenage girl this is essential. And yes, it has to be a smartphone – a dumbphone won’t do it. You need your friends to be able to find you on Snap Maps, or to signal you’re in a dodgy situation – calling 999 isn’t always possible. It is so unbelievably naive to try to limit this, and shows a lack of social thinking. It’s so easy to villainise the artefact instead of the culture that has formed around it.

One hope for the internet was it would enable greater information access worldwide. I think my generation is much more aware of global politics than previous ones were at our age; if we know about the abortion battle in the US, or the temperature spikes in Mexico, or the bombardment of Gaza, it’s because of social media. The empathy for global struggles that could previously be glossed over fuels us. Just look at the school climate strikes, and the youth presence on the pro-Palestine marches.

Of course, there is a flipside to this. Many people fear the impact of misinformation on young minds who have unlimited internet access via their phones. To that I say: generation Z is much less gullible than older generations. We have grown up with the internet, and are much more media literate. We’re more likely to factcheck, and we’re more likely to do lateral reading.

It wouldn’t be effective to strip us of something we have adjusted to so much better than our elders. Scrapping smartphones is like taking the batteries out of the smoke alarm instead of putting out the fire.

Nadeine Asbali, teacher: when there are genuine risks to mental health, there should be age limits

As a secondary schoolteacher, I can’t help but think stopping under-14s having smarphones should be policy across the country.

I know we live in a rapidly developing world and that smartphones are increasingly becoming the key to accessing many important services, from banking apps to making appointments. While phones have many benefits for adult users, who are already cognitively developed, for children they pose a genuine risk to their mental health, body image and even safety. I see these problems arise in the classroom every day – teenagers fixating more on the latest social media trends than their learning; or emulating hypersexualised and violently misogynistic language used by viral figures.

A new book entitled The Anxious Generation reports that nearly 40% of teenage girls who spend more than five hours on social media a day have been diagnosed with clinical depression. In schools, this manifests as increased rates of self-harm and social isolation, with more pupils skipping lessons. Over my seven-year teaching career, I have personally witnessed issues worsen. It’s now common for a handful of children in each class to have serious mental health issues – often leading them to becoming “school refusers”.

Related: Campaigners ‘thrilled’ as St Albans aims to be smartphone-free for under-14s

Unchecked access to smartphones among children has also led to a hypersexualisation epidemic in our schools. Just under 30% of 11-year-olds have viewed graphic sexual content online and about a 10th of 14-18s are reported to be addicted to pornography. Not only does this have links to self-esteem issues and broader relationship problems in later life, but it means there has been a rise in sexual harassment in the classroom, too.

As a teacher, it feels like there is an almost daily occurrence of explicit, violent, misogynistic or sexualised language being used by students – aimed at peers and teachers. Normal arguments in the playground can descend into virulent misogyny with words like “whore” or “high-value man” thrown around by children, who scarcely understand their meaning. Young boys are increasingly viewing the likes of Andrew Tate as their role model – even writing about him in English essays.

There’s also a latent pressure that taking and sending sexually explicit images is part of a normal “adult” relationship, with girls in particular resigned to overly sexualised behaviour being expected of them from before puberty.

Pre-adolescence is such a vitally important stage in terms of development that it feels incumbent on us as a society to claw back some of what childhood is about – socialisation, discovery, learning and fun. Most young people will inevitably get a smartphone at some stage, but why not delay it a little and leave room for them to simply be children first?

Zoe Williams, parent: the problems of technology are profound, and policing children isn’t the answer

It’s impossible not to sympathise with parents of a teenager who’s had some tragedy involving their phone use, whether that’s sexploitation or a deepfake, harmful content pushed by dodgy algorithms or classic bullying upgraded by technology. No question, malign actors have had more ways to inveigle themselves into your children’s lives since the advent of the smartphone.

However, politically, the idea of banning smartphones for children under the age of 14 is part of a parenting discourse that follows a pattern: a social problem that is large-scale and profound – let’s say the crisis in child and adolescent mental health – is pegged to modern technology, while the real causes (for brevity, hardship) go undiscussed; all responsibility is thrown back on to individual families, sometimes also schools, and then people perform their orthodoxy and respectability to one another by banning phones altogether to keep their child safe.

I distrust it profoundly, not just because it misdiagnoses the problem and diverts attention from where it’s needed, but because it’s fundamentally divisive, ranking parents by their obedience to the narrative, and the compliance they can wring out of their children.

With two 16-year-olds (one boy, one girl) and a 14-year-old daughter, I never worry about their behaviour or their friendship circles and I’d never invade their privacy. I do worry about misinformation (especially on TikTok), creeps (especially on Discord), the constant parade of perfect, bullshit lives (especially on Instagram), the way some platforms seem purpose-built to sow teenage paranoia (Snapchat) and distractions (from everything). To police the use of any of it, though, would introduce a layer of mutual distrust that I’m happier without.