OPINION - I was part of the guinea pig smartphone generation — how did anyone think this was okay?

 (Shutterstock / Rawpixel.com)
(Shutterstock / Rawpixel.com)

When I was about 12 or 13, my friends and I used to play a game at sleepovers. Crowded around an iPhone or computer screen, upstairs and out of sight of our parents, we would log onto Omegle, a now-defunct website whose sole function was to pair anonymous users at random for one-on-one video chats.

It was usually only a matter of minutes before we’d see the first penis. One after another they would flash up on the screen as we fell about cackling, half-covering our eyes with our school jumper sleeves. “Ewwww! Next, next!” After exchanging a few messages, someone would end the chat, and the game began again. It was only years later that I realised the reality of what was happening — we were in direct contact with paedophiles.

This is one of the many memories from my childhood in the nascent days of social media and smartphones that I look back on in horror. It was the early 2010s, and the possibilities of social media were new and exciting. As young children we were the guinea pigs of this burgeoning internet space, the first generation to be raised by smartphones.

The iPhone, Instagram and Tumblr were all new inventions, and they came with next to no parental controls. While the internet had been around for a while, never before had children had 24/7 access to it from their pockets, with ever-evolving forms of social media placing great demands on young minds. Our parents had no idea what we were up to, and the evidence and understanding of any potential effects on our development was non-existent.

The picture now, of course, is very different. Last week, a group of schools in London announced their plans to go smartphone-free, the latest development in a growing movement attempting to combat phone-based childhoods. Headteachers at 17 of the 20 state secondary schools in Southwark have taken the collective action to confiscate mobile phones, as part of what has become known as the smartphone-free childhood movement.

What started as one WhatsApp group between a handful of parents to support each other in sending their children to school without smartphones has now spread to more than 70 such groups in the UK, and is gaining ground internationally. The movement has won the backing of a host of celebrities, including Peep Show stars Sophie Winkleman and Isy Suttie, who last week urged Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer to ban smartphones for children, and Kate Winslet, who has been outspoken about her decision not to let her own children use social media.

“It’s as though we sent Gen Z to grow up on Mars when we gave them smartphones in the early 2010s in the largest uncontrolled experiment humanity has ever performed on its own children,” writes American psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Anxious Generation, which has been a driving force behind the campaign.

Haidt convincingly argues that a sharp rise in depression, anxiety, loneliness and suicide among young people is directly correlated to the wide distribution of smartphones. The evidence is compelling: a 2017 National Health Survey found that since the last study in 2004, anxiety in 11 to 15-year-olds in England had risen by about 70 per cent. Between 2010 and 2018, the number of 13 to 16-year-olds hospitalised for self-harm increased by 78 per cent for girls and 134 per cent for boys.

I went from a voracious reader as a child, to a young teenager glued to a screen, scrolling for hours out of sight from my parents long past my bedtime. My attention span suffered, I became irascible and withdrawn

Correlation is, of course, not always necessarily causation. But in my case it was. I went from a voracious reader as a child, to a young teenager glued to a screen, scrolling for hours out of sight from my parents long past my bedtime. Instagram and Tumblr were a carousel of the very worst of toxic skinny culture, my algorithm primed to feed me pro-anorexia content. My attention span suffered, I became irascible and withdrawn. Dangerous sites like Omegle and Ask.fm, a site where users asked each other anonymous questions accessible to anyone, went largely under the radar.

There are those who accuse the movement of peddling moral panic, or believe that banning smartphones would impinge on children’s human rights. And there are undoubtedly some benefits of social media for children, particularly in the LGBTQ+ community, to escape potentially toxic home environments and access spaces of solidarity and education.

However when, as Ofcom has found, 91 per cent of children in the UK own a smartphone by the age of 11, it is hard not to see this as a terrifying wholesale restructuring of the childhood experience.

I am lucky that, relatively speaking, the scars of my digital childhood have not proven too deep. But I am glad to see the tide finally turning on smartphones. It is too late now, but I would have given anything to have someone advocating for me too.

Emma Loffhagen is an Evening Standard columnist