I gave my 11-year-old a smartphone and regret it - here's what I wish I'd known, as ministers vote to ban smartphones for under-16s

A ban on smartphones for under-16s is being considered by the UK Government, and our writer is in favour

Three children using smartphones in an airport
(Image credit: Heidi Scrimgeour)

It began with pester power. ‘I’m the only one in my class with no phone, Mum.’ With that line, my eldest child secured his first iPhone at the tender age of eleven, almost a decade ago.

In my defence, we didn’t know about the negative impact of smartphones on children then. From screen addiction and poor mental health to sleep disturbance and declining social skills, the deleterious effects of smartphone use are well documented, leaving parents like me wishing they could turn back the clock and undo the decision to give smartphones to kids at such a young age.

So I welcome the news that ministers are considering banning smartphones for under-16s, following plans to ban the use of mobile phones in schools. A call for stricter controls on smartphones for under-16s by the mother of Brianna Ghey (the 16-year-old transgender girl who was murdered by two teens) has achieved significant public support, too. Esther Ghey has said social media use made Brianna vulnerable and that her killers had easy access to violent content online. Many of my mum friends agree with the proposed ban; there's so much we wish we'd known about how smartphones might impact kids, including...

1. That studies would show devastating effects of smartphones on child mental health

Every day I seem to be reading a new study about the horrific impact that smartphones are having on children’s mental health - addiction, depression, bullying, body issues, and even suicide. I've educated my children as best I can about how to stay safe online but I still worry about what they're seeing and how it may have impacted them, especially when I read an Amnesty International report that TikTok pushes children and young people into “rabbit holes” of potentially harmful content, including videos that romanticize self-harm and suicide. And I've implemented every scrap of expert advice I can find around utilising parental restrictions to protect my children, but that feels like pushing water up a hill when Meta, which Mark Zuckerberg originally founded as Facebook, decides to lower the minimum user age for WhatsApp from 16 to 13, prompting critics to say the firm is "putting profits before protecting children".

In his new book The Anxious Generation, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says the use of smartphones among adolescents, which coincided with modern parenting approaches moving towards oversupervision and therefore diminishing freedom for kids - has resulted in a ‘rewiring’ of childhood and an ‘epidemic’ of mental illness, along with too few offline experiences that build resilient kids.

But Haidt’s critics reckon talk of the damaging effects of smartphones on kids is just the hysteria that every generation exhibits - along comes new technology that disrupts the way things have always been, and older generations start tut-tutting about its dangers and prophesying doom for its users.

I understand that view. I remember my parents reacting with horror when I disappeared into my bedroom with our fancy new cordless landline after school. ‘You’ve been together all day, what could you possibly have to talk about all evening?’ quizzed my dad, not knowing the problem of teens and phones had barely begun.

2. That phones would give kids such easy access to explicit content

Smartphones for kids seemed like such a good idea less than a decade ago but looking back, I wish they’d come with health warnings. We had no idea we were handing kids access to unsafe, age-restricted and illegal content and we knew next to nothing about how to keep kids safe online yet now we’re bombarded with data about the damage we might have done.

3. That phones exposed kids to being bullied at any time of day or night

When I gave my older two children smartphones at the age of eleven, I thought they would help keep my kids safe and perhaps spare them the childhood stresses of my generation. Our youngsters would easily be able to phone home if they missed the bus, and worried parents could keep tabs on kids stretching their wings on school trips and sleepovers. Costly contracts seemed a small price to pay for the peace of mind that came with popping a phone in their pocket.

In reality, half of teens say they are addicted to social media according to the Millennium Cohort Study which tracks 19,000 young people born in the UK between 2000 and 2002.

So, knowing everything we do now, I’m in favour of banning smartphones for under 16s. But not everyone agrees. Andy Lulham, Chief Operating Officer at VerifyMy, has worked within age-restricted businesses and safety tech solution providers for more than a deacde and believes a smartphone ban would only prompt kids to look for ways to circumvent it.

Andy Lulham, COO at VerifyMy
Andy Lulham

Andy has over 15 years’ experience in senior marketing, commercial, operations and international roles, mainly in eGaming at brands including Betfair and Oddschecker.

"An outright ban is therefore unlikely to restrict access to harmful content and nor will it open up the much-needed conversation around online safety,” he says. “This needs a collective effort. By working together - government, regulators, platforms, technology providers, civil society, educators, parents and children - we can create age-appropriate online experiences for young people.”

Rather than a blanket ban, Lulham feels more must be done to restrict underage access to illegal and inappropriate material. “Robust technologies exist, have been tested at scale, are privacy-preserving and help to ensure an age-appropriate experience for children,” he adds.

Interestingly, my teenagers agree. I texted them - oh, the irony - to ask their views on the proposed smartphone ban. "A phone isn't harmful or dangerous to a child," replied my 17-year-old, whose first phone was delivered by Santa. "How it's used is the issue, and that's down to parents." (Ouch...)

4. That my kids and I would argue endlessly about screen time

My son is right, of course. I'm partly to blame if giving my kids smartphones has impacted them in negative ways. But I had no idea that screen time and late-night phone usage would be a source of so many family arguments.

"Parents can set restrictions on smartphones to limit negative effects," added my 19-year-old, who also opposes the ban. "But kids can find ways around those restrictions," I countered, remembering him cracking the code that blocked screen time after bedtime. "They always have and they always will,” he agreed. "Isn't that one of the joys of parenting?"

As I told him, I’m still conducting research into what the so-called joys of parenting are. When I find out, I'll be sure to let you know.

The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, was £25, now £20 at Amazon

The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, was £25, now £20 at Amazon

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores the impact of smartphones on adolescents in many countries around the world and examines why mental health deteriorated suddenly in the early 2010s.

Looking for more fresh takes on the parenting issues of the day? Read what parents need to know about why girls' body confidence plummets at the age of seven by our teens and tweens expert, or discover a parenting expert's advice on how to handle it when your child wants to quit their hobby. Or for a dose of Royal parenting news, check out Meghan Markle’s understandable parenting anxiety that means Prince Archie and Princess Lilibet likely won’t visit the UK next month.

Heidi Scrimgeour
Deputy Editor

Heidi is a seasoned parenting journalist with over 15 years of experience. She has contributed to numerous UK national newspapers, including The Guardian, The Times, and The Telegraph. Her work has also appeared in a variety of print and digital magazines, such as Psychologies and Mother & Baby, where she was Shopping Editor for six years. In this role, she specialised in consumer features, including buying guides and baby gear reviews. Heidi is also mum to two teenage sons and a ten-year-old daughter.