The last year of primary school has always been a time of gaining independence. For me, that meant being allowed to walk with a friend to ‘Our Price’ on my local high street and rummage through the Five Star cassettes for an afternoon. Could there be anything more thrilling for an 11-year-old in 1990?
But nowadays those baby steps into the big real world as primary-school days come to an end are so often overshadowed by a more life-changing milestone in the virtual one – a child’s first phone.
The average age to receive a smartphone both in Britain and the US is 10 (although among the tech elite that age is far higher – Bill Gates, for example, waited until his kids were 14).
For that reason, I’ve been bracing myself for my oldest daughter to reach Year 6 – her last year before she goes to ‘big school’ – which she did last week. Having decided she definitely won’t be getting a phone until at least the end of her junior years, I was expecting a few bumps in the road as her friends started receiving theirs.
But thankfully, I can now relax in the knowledge that this year is likely to be a nag-free zone (on this issue at least). I won’t be hearing, ‘But EVERYONE has one’ or have to console her for feeling left out of the phone gang, because the majority of parents in the class have made a pact: no phones or social media including WhatsApp until the end of the year.
It’s only a year, but it’s a precious one and as phones are creeping into our children’s lives earlier and earlier it feels like a small but significant victory. The way I see it, my daughter now has one last year of childhood ahead.
Unlike so many other parenting decisions we make in our family silos – what treats our children eat, what time they go to bed, how much TV they watch – decisions around phones and access to social media are inextricably linked to our children’s peers. Not giving your child a phone when all their friends are chatting away on theirs takes far more courage than shoeing them into bed early.
It’s a scenario friends so often tell me they are battling with, and frequently with children much younger than 10. One recently admitted that when her daughter argues about getting a phone (she doesn’t have one, most of her friends in her class do) she has started uttering those awful angsty words ‘I hate you’.
Another confided that her son gets upset because lots of his friends Facetime each other on their phones at bedtime, which makes him feel left out. Her son, for the record, is seven. These glimpses from the frontline explain why so many parents end up going against their gut. No one wants their child to feel socially excluded, so when it comes to these decisions, we parents need each other. So how did I find such solidarity with the parents in my daughter’s class?
Not giving your child a phone when all their friends are chatting away on theirs takes far more courage than shoeing them into bed early
It started when I posted an article I wrote for this paper on the class WhatsApp group, which questioned the social norms around the age children receive smartphones. My daughter was halfway through Year 5 at the time, which seemed to mean she would soon become of smartphone age.
Many of our kids’ first steps towards independence come with a smattering of anxiety, but this impending rite of passage felt absolutely caked in it.
Whether it was the girl down the road who’d dropped out of school due to cyberbullying, the friend whose daughter had started seeing a therapist due to Instagram-induced anxiety or the slew of new studies linking social media with a rise in insomnia, addiction, depression and self-harm in the nation’s tweens and teens, the picture was clear. This was a milestone to be approached with extreme caution.
That day, our class chat went into overdrive and later, huddled in the playground, a group of Year 5 mums discussed creating a class pact: no phones until the end of Year 6. Simple? Of course not. The idea was broached on our class chat, and lots of discussion followed.
Many loved the idea but some parents wanted to give their child a phone so they could start journeying independently or so they could get accustomed to using it in the safe environment of primary school.
And there were those who had already bought phones – often when there was an older sibling in the family. With 30 parents and hundreds of messages it was hard to ascertain whether there was a consensus, so the idea of a phone pact was left in limbo.
It was only when we were given a sobering warning by the head and deputy head teacher at a curriculum evening to welcome us to Year 6 that the discussion reignited. Don’t allow phones to ruin your child’s last year of primary school, was the crux of the message.
They’d seen the effects on previous Year 6 groups both in terms of anxiety and safety, online and off. (So addictive are these little devices that even for kids to take their eyes off of them for long enough to cross the road on the way to school is a struggle.)
They also shared new school guidelines – no electronic communication after 8pm and no social media or WhatsApp (the age limit for which by the way is 13). They didn’t present them as school rules, as they’re impossible to enforce, rather heartfelt recommendations.
Don’t allow phones to ruin your child’s last year of primary school, was the crux of the message
Executing the advice, they said, was down to us parents. Spurred on by the school’s stance we decided to send out an anonymous online survey to give everyone the opportunity to air their views without judgement.
The idea was to gauge whether there was a consensus of opinion and it was made clear that it was to help parents with similar views support each other in their decisions, rather than enforce class rules on anyone who didn’t want them. The questions were simple.
When would you like to give your child their first mobile phone? (Options being the summer holiday after graduating primary school, the last month of Year 6 or sometime earlier. And a box to tick if your child already had one).
The second question asked if parents would be happy not to allow social media (including WhatsApp) for the duration of the school year.
Just over 24 hours, later 26 out of 30 sets of parents had responded – 25 were happy not to allow social media and WhatsApp. Eighty per cent of parents also wanted to wait until either the last month of Year 6 or the summer holiday to buy a device.
Now those 80 per cent of parents know they are in the majority and needn’t worry their child will become a social pariah by sticking to their conviction.
There’s critical mass and that is all we need for this year not to be a battle. The classic ‘I’m the ONLY one who isn’t allowed….’ guilt-trip, often so effective at hoodwinking parents into doing exactly what they don’t want to, just isn’t going to cut it. Thankfully, in the knowledge that the parents are in tune, the kids seem to have happily accepted the decision too.
The pact also comes with a pledge to our children, that we will work with the school to ‘phone prep’ them this year – something all parents in the class feel strongly about. If you see pictures of your friends out together without you, how might that make you feel? What should you respond if someone asks you to send photos of yourself you don’t feel comfortable about?
Would you worry it would impact your social life? Who could you tell? How important is it for friends to like your posts online? What do you do if you see a distressing image online? If our children have thought through their responses to these scenarios, perhaps it will make it easier to handle if they stumble across them in real life.
My Year 6 class aren’t alone. There are pockets of parents everywhere working together to take better control of their decisions when it comes to their children’s tech journeys. One friend recently joined a two-year no smartphone pact with the parents of her son’s new class at secondary school after a few concerned parents called a meeting.
‘He wasn’t happy with me at first but more than half of the parents in his year group aren’t giving smartphones until Year 9, so it’s made it much easier for him to accept. I think he likes his Nokia ‘dumb phone’ now. It’s still exciting to have a phone – even if it’s not a smartphone,’ she says. Having been down the iPhone road with her older son, now 13, she says she learnt from her experience.
‘Starting high school is a lot for them to cope with emotionally, so I feel throwing a smartphone into the mix at that age is just too much. Even if you set boundaries, they end up on their device at every opportunity, so the hours they might have spent outside or seeing friends in real life are spent alone with their heads bent over a screen,’ she says.
‘So many of the mums in my older son’s class have said they wish we’d done the same thing – and if we’d known then what we know now, we probably would have done. I’m just grateful I’ve got the chance to do things differently this time round. If it hadn’t been for the support of other parents, I probably would have ended up giving in, but I know he’s better off without one.’
Another group of mums of 12-year-old boys have brought in a weekday ‘Fortnite’ ban, while founder of parent app Kinfo Isabelle Delmas, has made a “no screen during the weekdays or on playdates” agreement with the parents of her seven- and 10-year-old children’s close friends.
These tough dilemmas and decisions optimise our times. But I doubt when our children become parents, they’ll be having the same debates. It’s likely they’ll remember feeling humiliated by a bully on a WhatsApp group. They’ll remember that clip they’ve never been able to un-see.
They’ll know how it feels when an image they only ever intended for one person finds its way online. They’ll instinctively know what’s right – and I can’t help feeling it won’t involve giving their 10-year-olds smartphones (or whatever their device descendants may be).
Right now, we parents are feeling our way in uncharted territory, and until governments do more to make the internet a safer place for children like the Telegraph is asking for in our Duty of Care campaign (holding tech companies to account in terms of age restrictions and exploiting kids’ reward and pleasure centres with addictive technology), we’re on our own – which is why we need each other. Who’s joining our pact?
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