If you really want kids to spend less time online, make space for them in the real world | Gaby Hinsliff

Three-quarters of children want to spend more time in nature. Having spent the Easter weekend trying to force four resistant teenagers off their phones and out for a nice walk over the Yorkshire Dales, admittedly I’ll have to take the National Trust’s word for this. But that’s what its survey of children aged between seven and 14 finds, anyway.

Kids don’t necessarily want to spend every waking minute hunched over a screen, however strongly they give that impression; even though retreating online satisfies the developmentally important desire to escape their annoying parents, even teenagers still want to run wild in the real world occasionally. Their relationship with phones is complex and maddening, but not a million miles off adults’ own love-hate relationship with social media; a greasy sugar-rush we crave but rarely feel better for indulging. Yet lately, longstanding parental unease over children’s screen habits has been hardening into something more like revolt.

In Canada last week, four school boards announced they were suing TikTok, Meta and Snapchat, claiming that compulsively appealing social media products have “rewired the way children think, behave and learn” and left schools struggling to contain the fallout. Back in Britain, Esther Ghey, mother of the murdered teenager Brianna, has launched an eminently sensible campaign for a properly enforced ban on under-13s using social media, and for parental monitoring apps to be installed as a default on new phones. (Scarlett Jenkinson, one of two teenagers convicted of killing Brianna, had watched deeply disturbing violent content on her phone; Brianna herself accessed material about self-harm and anorexia on X, formerly Twitter). A grassroots movement of parents pledging to hold out on smartphones until their children are at least 14 – so that not having Snapchat becomes the norm rather than a lonely exception – is gathering steam. And parents are only likely to be more spooked by the US psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s widely publicised new book The Anxious Generation, which blames surging teenage mental health problems partly on smartphones and social media.

That connection feels instinctively right to many of us who have seen X, Facebook and Instagram bring out the inner bully, conspiracy theorist or narcissist in too many full-grown adults, never mind insecure and immature teenagers. In retrospect, letting these platforms evolve in the carelessly destructive way they did looks like madness. Yet there’s a difference between holding tech giants accountable for avoidable harms and leaping to the simplistic conclusion that social media alone explains children’s unhappiness, or that it has actively “rewired” their neurological pathways.

Reviewing Haidt’s book in the scientific journal Nature, the psychologist Candice Odgers argues that while the decline in teenage mental health did roughly overlap with the arrival of smartphones, evidence for a causal link between the two remains weak and contradictory. Meanwhile, the British psychologist Pete Etchells, whose own new book Unlocked: The Real Science of Screen Time argues that the panic is overdone, is fond of pointing out that longitudinal data shows eating potatoes has roughly the same effect on teenage wellbeing as screen time does, yet we tend to recognise that as the statistical quirk it almost certainly is. So far, the picture is arguably still muddled enough to allow cherrypicking of evidence by both sides – but that’s little help to anxious parents.

For teenagers with existing mental health issues who seek comfort or answers online, social media looks custom-built to amplify whatever dark feelings of inadequacy they’re already struggling with, while for bullied children, smartphones enable persecution around the clock. Those two risks alone should be enough to invoke the precautionary principle, and Esther Ghey’s plan – which essentially treats social media like alcohol or tobacco, legal harms that kids must learn to navigate eventually but preferably not before they’re mature enough to cope – does so.

But treating smartphones as the only source of children’s unhappiness is scientifically shaky and politically too convenient, skating as it does over significantly more expensive problems to solve: poverty, parental stress, the shocking under-provision both of children’s mental health services and youth work services offering safe, interesting, alternative ways for kids to spend their time. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Haidt’s thesis – in which the key role for the state is the relatively cheap one of regulator – has been most eagerly adopted on the political right.

Yet even he stresses that this isn’t just about phones, but over-anxious parenting and the decline of adventurous, unsupervised play for younger children: climbing trees and falling out of them, making dens, roaming the neighbourhood on your bike, and other experiences the National Trust’s research suggests too many children lack. A government target to ensure everyone lives within 15 minutes of green space such as parks and rivers – not that our filthy waterways are much of an attraction – has evaporated; and though fewer cars make urban streets safer to play in, the Tories have gone cold on low-traffic neighbourhoods. Meanwhile, teenagers loitering in public spaces are met with adult suspicion and hostility.

As a society we nag kids to get off their phones into the real world, but won’t make room for them here; we put adult convenience first, and are then surprised when children don’t flourish. The tech giants could and should do vastly more to create a healthy environment for children. But in that, they’re very much not alone.

The Guardian