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Annie's Story

Dear Smartphone Free Childhood,

My sister in law shared this email address with me and told me that you're looking for stories from parents who have held off or taken away smart phones from their kids and she thought I should share my story with you.

Our daughter H has just turned 15. In 2020 when it was time for her to start secondary school, having only just turned 11, I wanted to be able to contact her and see her location at anytime. She would be taking a bus for 30 minutes each way every day and I was nervous about sending her so far without having the ability to check her location so before she started school, we gave her my old iPhone.

We thought we knew what we were doing to keep her safe. We installed an app that connected to my phone and would show me what she was viewing online, we explained to her how nothing shared online is ever private, photos, messages and videos once out there are out there forever and can be seen by others. We explained that people aren't always who they say they are online, and you might think you're talking to a kid but it could actually be a 40 year old man. We had a rule about no phones upstairs or in the bathroom and importantly she knew it was not her own private phone, it was one that we were letting her use. We thought we had it covered.

H has always been such a character, so colourful and loves doing art, playing the guitar and taking part in school plays. Once she had a phone she became consumed by it. It was a battle to get her to put it down, she was withdrawn and she would hide away in the corner typing away to her friends on Snapchat.

She stopped doing art, hardly played the guitar anymore and we just watched her bright colourful personality fade away. We put it down to the impact of Covid and a new school where it had been hard for her to make friends due to all of the restrictions. When we would visit family she wouldn't engage with them, shed hide away in another room with the phone instead.

It became worse during the second year that she had the phone. She had also befriended a group of girls who we weren't quite sure of but cautiously let the friendships continue under our supervision.

H then figured out how to uninstall the parental controls app without it alerting me, so she could do what she wanted on the phone without my knowledge. Just before As 13th birthday when I was checking through the phone I discovered various messages as well as a group chat she was part of on Snapchat, that included a name I didn't recognise. We also found screenshots of messages with friends about oral sex in the deleted images folder, among various other worrying conversations.

I panicked and had a hard time sleeping that night.

The following morning I woke her up to talk to her about it and find out as much as a could. H told me that the person whose name I didn't recognise was supposedly an old family friend of a new school friend, and he was a 15 year old boy who lived in Italy.

I contacted the friend's mother to verify this and she told me she had no idea who this person was, there was no family friend in Italy. This was quite upsetting for us. For all we knew he was an adult masquerading as a teenager. Snapchat videos and photos disappear once they've been viewed so I still have no idea exactly what content was shared in this group chat between them but reading between the lines of what was left available, it wasn't always the sort of chat a 12 year old should be taking part in.

I was devastated to find what we did and worried for our daughter. I knew we needed to make an immediate change. We took the phone away and held her home from school for a few days while we figured out what to do. We looked into moving her to another school but decided to speak to the deputy head teacher first and let him know what was going on. He listened to everything we said and was very sympathetic toward us. He could also see a decline in her grades and behaviour over the course of the year.

We decided to take the phone away indefinitely. Once H no longer had a phone to occupy her time, an amazing thing happened. To deal with her boredom she began to pick up her paintbrush and pens again and start drawing again. She started reading again. She started playing the guitar again.

Over the following year we watched her colour come back and today she's absolutely flourishing. She has become a phenomenal musician and artist, and she has taken on one of the lead roles for her school's performance this summer. Shes doing well in school again and she engages in conversation with people around her.

She used to ask when she would get the phone back but now she doesn't even want one. She looks around and sees all the kids on her bus with their faces buried in their phones and she says they're boring.

They have no lives and they never do anything else. She recognises that it's not a healthy way to live.

We know that it's important for our kids to be able to contact their friends and not feel cut off from weekend plans, so we now have what is called "The Shared Phone" which is like a fancy landline but is a smart phone that we all share as a family. It has no social media or games and every contact on it knows that the phone is shared between us so nothing is private.

Although at the beginning it was hard and we ve wondered if we did the right thing by taking the phone away, my husband and I are sure now that we never should have given her one in the first place. It's especially reassuring to see H acknowledge how much better off she is without one.

We can't see any good reason why kids need these devices, when all they seem to do is cause more harm than good. If the reason for giving your child a phone is so you can contact them, then why can't they have a "dumb" phone? I genuinely feel that parents are just caving into peer pressure because "all the other kids have a phone" and to me that's not a good enough reason.

I'm not sure if it's of any value to you but that's our story.

Kind regards,