When the first smartphone appeared on the market in early 2007, it felt like life had been made infinitely easier, with texts, music, gaming and a quality camera all in one place. Fast-forward 16 years and we are addicted to our phones, with mental health on the decline from overwhelming WhatsApp messages and our sleep impacted negatively by scrolling right up until we close our eyes.
And our children are right there with us. A 2023 survey revealed that 17 per cent of three to four-year-olds in the UK already have a smartphone, and 53 per cent of eight to 11-year-olds. And by the time they are 16, only two per cent of children don’t own a smartphone.
Hayley Mann, a senior break leader at Go Beyond, which provides free residential breaks for vulnerable children – and is one of the charities supported in this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal – isn’t surprised.
“We find so many children say they don’t even know how to go to sleep without scrolling through TikTok first,” Mann says.
Alongside the well-known negative effects of blue light on sleep, unchecked and unlimited use of screens can influence the risk of child obesity and insulin resistance, and is associated with poorer academic outcomes.
With five to 16-year-olds in Britain spending an average of three hours and 20 minutes a day on their phones, the increasingly sophisticated algorithms used to keep children hooked are clearly working.
And there can be no doubt a break would be beneficial, with digital detoxes known to reduce stress, improve sleep habits and encourage a more positive outlook on life. So could your child cope with a smartphone-free week? Could you?
Ways to manage a smartphone-free week:
Explain why you are doing it (but expect pushback)
Despite looking more and more like adults, teenagers will not share our outlook on the benefits of a week-long digital cleanse. With the part of their brain responsible for emotional regulation and critical thinking still developing, they will struggle to understand your reasoning.
“When we’re speaking to them about anything hypothetical, whether it’s phones or something else, they are going to be more emotional than us,” explains Sarah Ockwell-Smith, a parenting expert and author of Between: A Guide for Parents of Eight to Thirteen-year-olds. “And they will struggle to understand the risk. A bit like when we had ‘stop smoking’ lectures at school. They will feel the risks don’t really apply to them.”
Listen to their complaints but be clear that the benefits will be worth it.