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Should you ban your family from smartphones? HARRY WALLOP did just that – with VERY surprising results

What are the essentials of life? The U.S. academic Abraham Maslow famously said all humans had basic physiological needs: air, water, food, clothes, warmth and shelter.

Yet in the modern world, could a smartphone legitimately be added to that list?

Sure, I rarely leave the house without mine — I see it as an indispensable tool for work — but I would not say I am addicted to it.

And I would like to think my children are not completely fixated on their devices either. We gave all four of them, now aged from 12 to 21, second-hand smartphones when they started secondary school, believing they were an important aid — offering access to bus timetables, maps, messaging and, let’s face it, a useful way to keep track of them.

But could our desire to keep our children connected have caused them more harm than good? Last month Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, announced new guidance for headteachers, allowing them to ban phones in school.

While my two eldest sons are at university, I worry that Celia, 16, who is meant to be revising for GCSEs and Arthur, 12, spend far too long on their phones, writes Harry Wallop

She was backed by Jason Elsom, chief executive of the charity Parentkind, who said: ‘Children are addicted to harmful ‘electronic drugs’ and have no escape from their digital dealers, not even within the relatively safe grounds of their schools.’

Figures from Ofcom show 97 per cent of children have a phone by the age of 12. Denying your secondary-school child a smartphone is the modern equivalent of parents who banished televisions in the 1980s, when I was growing up — something that marked out your family as weird.

Still, while my two eldest sons are at university, I do worry that Celia, 16, who is meant to be revising for GCSEs and Arthur, 12, spend far too long on their phones.

Phones are meant to be banned at the table, but too often that rule gets broken. Recently, Celia tore a ligament, which meant she was off sports for a month, and I discovered she’d spent the time away from the netball pitch glued to TikTok, averaging more than five hours a day of screen time.

Appalled, and after yet another row, I foolishly declared that we, as a family, were going to go phone-free for a week. Celia and Arthur howled, claiming they would call Childline and report me for abuse.

I amended the plan; it wasn’t a phone ban, it was a smartphone ban — I would track down the cheapest ‘burner’ phone available, a Nokia 105 (Argos, £24.99) that can’t access the internet, and we could use those for a week to make calls and texts.

They were still grumbling loudly so I told them I would give extra pocket money to any child who lasted a full week, a shameless bribe.

There was no such incentive for me and my wife Vic to go cold turkey, however, and I wondered how we would fare. Being honest, I know we spend far too much time on our phones. I persuade myself it’s a work essential, and Vic says she needs it to juggle work with endless family commitments, but I know both of us spend too long ‘double-screening’ on the sofa in the evening while we watch TV, and both of us take our phones to bed with us.

Dame Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner, recently told MPs she thought many parents were setting a bad example to their children with their own ‘uncontrolled’ phone use — did she have a point?

So, with all four of us eyeing our smartphone fast with trepidation, would it improve our mental wellbeing or merely cause a huge family row? And who would break first?

HARRY, 49

  • Average daily screen time before experiment: 4hrs 19min
  • Most used app: X (Twitter)
  • Days managed without smartphone: 6.5

Before I even get out of bed most mornings, I reach to check what I’ve missed during the night — WhatsApps, news alerts, emails.

So, I thought I might find this experiment hard.

The first day was surprisingly easy, however. I had forgotten how much fun it was to play Snake, the free game that comes preloaded with Nokias. Celia, Arthur and I proceeded to spend the first hour of the project trying to beat each other’s scores (Me: 99), causing an exasperated Vic to say: ‘This is all about spending less — not more — time on your blasted phones. Stop it!’

Not accessing the news on waking up wasn’t too bad — I read the papers properly over breakfast rather than getting snippets from online — and waiting to log on to my computer in order to read emails and messages was revealing; I had missed nothing important. This was true of every day of the experiment.

Avoiding work messages before 8am and after 8pm is a habit I would like to keep. When I pointed this out to Vic, she claimed I was becoming insufferably smug.

Problems started to emerge, however, when I left the house. On Day Two, I got halfway to the station before I realised I did not have my wallet.

I have become increasingly cashless and even cardless, using my iPhone to pay for shopping and to tap into, and out, of train stations.

I had to run back, making me late and unable to text the person I was meeting to warn them because I didn’t have their number. This was deeply irritating.

I had underestimated how many important functions my phone undertakes, not least banking. I was nowhere near a computer when Celia called asking me to top up her travel card, something that usually takes 30 seconds on the app.

More annoying was remembering my e-bike only unlocks via an app. The wheels turn, but only sluggishly and the motor stays off. I tried cycling a mile to the shops and found it almost impossible. The children thought this hilarious; I did not.

This is the problem — a phone may be a drain on our attention, but it has also become a remote control for so much of our life, from turning on heating to unlocking doors.

At first, walking down the street without my phone felt weird, too. I would instinctively reach inside my pocket, searching for the dopamine hit of another news alert, another message, maybe a new email. Clearly, I am far more addicted to the device than I realised.

It was irritating that Celia, who spends more time on her phone than anyone else, seemed to be finding it easier than I was and would breezily answer ‘fine, really’ when I asked her how her no-phone day had gone.

Halfway through Sunday, I caved in and reached for my iPhone, writes Harry, having realised I was actively limiting my income by being incommunicado

Halfway through Sunday, I caved in and reached for my iPhone, writes Harry, having realised I was actively limiting my income by being incommunicado

But this separation anxiety slowly faded and by Day Four, I enjoyed going to an event in a part of London I do not know, forcing me to dig out a very old, battered A-Z.

I rediscovered the joy of map-reading, rather than blindly following a blue-dot on my screen.

By Day Five, however, work had become a problem. I use a sophisticated AI-powered app on my smartphone to record and transcribe interviews, which is so much quicker than my old battery-operated dictaphone. I use my camera to take pictures, many of which end up illustrating articles I am writing.

And I rely on WhatsApp. Being shut off from it meant I missed an important message from a TV producer asking me if I was free to appear in his documentary.

I only found out the next day from a follow-up email.

So halfway through Sunday, I caved in and reached for my iPhone, having realised I was actively limiting my income by being incommunicado. That, and the fact I had to go to an actual shop to return an unwanted shirt, after nearly a week of hassle, as I just couldn’t be bothered to print out the receipt to return it by post.

Did I feel guilty? A little —but also relief that I was finally back to normal. That said, I am determined to spend less thoughtless time on my phone, particularly early in the morning and late at night. I do worry that I waste hours on social media, rather than earning money, reading books or just engaging with the world.

But in 2024, not having a smartphone is like denying yourself central heating or hot running water — yes, you can survive without it. But why would you want to?

VIC, 48

  • Average daily screen time beforehand: 4h 59mins a day
  • Days managed without smartphone: 4.5

The first morning was a shock. I work from home for a law firm and can’t log into my computer remotely without inputting a code from a security app.

The work IT man couldn’t comprehend an employee not having a smartphone, so I had to (briefly) unlock my iPhone before we’d hardly begun. The next hassle was my Pret Club membership. I pay £30 a month in order to enjoy free coffee at the sandwich chain.

But to take advantage of the scheme, you need a QR code scanned on your phone.

I was forced to print out the code before going to my local branch, which caused the barista behind the counter to give me a funny look.

But these were frustrations, not a serious diminishment to my daily life. What I found really hard — and surprisingly so — was how isolating it was to have no access to the myriad ways I contact friends and family, particularly WhatsApp. Harry is essentially a grumpy, solitary man who contacts his friends twice a year — if he’s feeling sociable.

It was left to me to ensure Arthur didn’t miss out on a school social event because I wasn’t on the parents’ WhatsApp group —Harry was oblivious to the chaos caused by his phone competition. Also, I WhatsApp my best friends, my sisters, my nephews and our two sons at university on a daily basis, often multiple times a day.

Harry says he amended his plan to ban only smartphones... he would track down the cheapest 'burner' phone available, a Nokia 105 (Argos, £24.99) that can't access the internet

Harry says he amended his plan to ban only smartphones… he would track down the cheapest ‘burner’ phone available, a Nokia 105 (Argos, £24.99) that can’t access the internet 

I could have texted them, but using the tiny screen and the alphanumeric keypad meant each message took three or four minutes to type out.

I resorted to email from my laptop, but the last reply from Alexander, our 21-year-old, read: ‘This is a ridiculous way to communicate, when is this experiment of yours going to be over?’

The answer was four and a half days. Yes, I was the first of the four of us to break.

And I didn’t care — no one was giving me a pocket money bonus for lasting a week.

But I was very surprised the children lasted longer than me, because I thought they were far more addicted. I hadn’t realised quite how much I relied on it.

As a menopausal woman, I often wake up in the middle of the night and read the entire newspaper on my phone at 3am.

I could have read a book instead, but didn’t want to put the light on and wake up Harry. I just lay there seething — cross at the whole project. I hated the lack of podcasts, that I couldn’t look up recipes on my phone, and felt foolish that a colleague had to send me screengrabs of my boss’s WhatsApps via email.

Mostly, I loathed how lonely it made me feel. Yes, I spend too long on my smartphone, but it turns out most of that time is keeping in touch with those I love. What a wonderful invention.

CELIA, 16

  • Average daily Screen time beforehand: 5hrs 43mins
  • Days managed without smartphone: Full week

I’m happy to admit I’m addicted to my phone, like many — though not all — of my friends. I felt annoyed handing mine in to my parents, and thought I would only last a couple of days without it.

However, when I saw the tiny Nokia and the Snake game, I thought it might be almost exciting. Also I am super competitive, so however hard it was going to be, I was determined to beat Arthur. I was pretty keen to beat my parents, too.

Some of my friends thought it was hilarious, especially when it went off in class making the absurd doo-de-doo-doo ringtone. Even my teachers teased me.

As a GCSE student, we are allowed to use phones in class to look up information if needed. My parents think my teachers are too relaxed about phone use, but it does mean I can reply in the middle of the day when they ask endless questions about my plans.

I know I spend too much time on my iPhone — watching TikTok videos and Netflix, but mostly snapping [using the Snapchat messaging service] my friends.

I found it OK ditching the videos but I really, really missed chatting to my friends in the evening when I was doing my homework. I tried, at first, to text them but it took absolutely ages.

I am on various group chats, such as for my netball team. Not getting all the gossip was horrendous! I suffered from major FOMO [fear of missing out] knowing my friends were discussing plans I couldn’t be part of, which was upsetting.

However, by Day Three I had got used to it. It forced me to actually track down friends at school to chat to. And instead of taking a break from revising with Netflix during the evening, I rediscovered an old hobby of making bracelets, which was fab.

I knew I was going to win (and it felt great), because my parents are just as addicted as me, if not more so. I think they sometimes get cross with me for spending time on my phone as a substitute for sorting out their own phone problems.

ARTHUR, 12

  • Average daily Screen time beforehand: 2h 34mins a day
  • Days managed without smartphone: 5.5

I was annoyed by this whole idea. I don’t have a phone problem so thought I would win quite easily — even though Celia is stupidly competitive.

In any case, every morning my school makes us lock away our phones in something called a Yondr Pouch, which we can unlock with magnets at the end of the day. The teachers are quite strict, so most of us don’t check our phones.

But I do use it on the way to and from school — my journey takes about 30 minutes by bus — mostly listening to Spotify. Also, on the way to school we often get emails or Teams notifications from teachers about homework but also messages about after-school activities. Not getting these was a real pain.

My friends thought it was funny that I had a Nokia, but it was really depressing on the bus staring out of the window with nothing to listen to or do. My parents told me I should read a book, but I get travel sick if I do that.

Once my mother gave up, I thought what’s the point? If she couldn’t survive without her phone, it just proved how hard the challenge was.

Saturday morning really sucked — I wanted to play Fortnite with friends but I couldn’t message any of them to find out whether they were online. So, I decided to ask for my phone back.

Celia mocked me for being a loser, but I was just excited to re-enter the 21st century.

Would I give up my phone again? No. I don’t think smartphones are a problem for young people — the problem is the parents blindly cracking down on them without understanding why they are so important for us.

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  • Source of information and images “dailymail

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