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Should young kids have smartphones? These parents in Europe linked arms and said no

A 11-year-old boy plays with his father's phone outside school in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, June 17, 2024. Parents across Europe are rallying to make it normal for young kids to live smartphone-free. From Spain to Ireland and the UK, groups are ballooning on chat groups like WhatsApp and agreeing to link arms and refuse to buy children younger than 12 smartphones. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Try saying “no” when a child asks for a smartphone. What comes after, parents everywhere can attest, begins with some variation of: “Everyone has one. Why can’t I?”

But what if no preteen in sight has one — and what if having a smartphone was weird? That’s the endgame of an increasing number of parents across Europe who are concerned by evidence that smartphone use among young kids jeopardizes their safety and mental health — and share the conviction that there’s strength in numbers.

From Spain to Britain and Ireland, parents are flooding WhatsApp and Telegram groups with plans not just to keep smartphones out of schools, but to link arms and refuse to buy young kids the devices before — or even into — their teenage years.

After being inspired by a conversation in a Barcelona park with other moms, Elisabet García Permanyer started a chat group last fall to share information on the perils of Internet access for children with families at her kids’ school.

The group, called “Adolescence Free of Mobile Phones,” quickly expanded and now includes over 10,000 members. The most engaged parents are pushing for fellow parents to agree not to get their kids smartphones until they are 16. After organizing online, they facilitate real-world talks among concerned parents to further their crusade.

“When I started this, I just hoped I would find four other families who thought like me, but it took off and kept growing, growing and growing,” García Permanyer says. “My goal was to try to join forces with other parents so we could push back the point when smartphones arrive. I said, ‘I am going to try so that my kids are not the only ones who don't have one.’"

It isn't just parents. Police and public health experts were sounding the alarm about a spike of violent and pornographic videos watched by children via handheld devices. Spain’s government took note of the momentum and banned smartphones entirely from elementary schools in January. Now they can only be turned on in high school, which starts at age 12, if a teacher deems it necessary for an educational activity.

The movement in Britain gained steam this year after the mother of 16-year-old Brianna Ghey, who was killed by two teenagers last year, began demanding that kids under 16 be blocked from accessing social media on smartphones.

“It feels like we all know (buying smartphones) is a bad decision for our kids, but that the social norm has not yet caught up,” Daisy Greenwell, a Suffolk, England-area mother of three kids under age 10, posted to her Instagram earlier this year. “What if we could switch the social norm so that in our school, our town, our country, it was an odd choice to make to give your child a smartphone at 11? What if we could hold off until they’re 14, or 16?”

She and a friend, Clare Reynolds, set up a WhatsApp group called Parents United for a Smartphone-Free Childhood, with three people on it. Within four days, 2,000 people had joined the group, requiring Greenwell and Reynolds to split off dozens of groups by locality. Now there's a chat group for every British county.

Parents rallying to ban smartphones from young children have a long way to go to change what’s considered “normal.” By the time they’re 12, most children have smartphones, statistics from all three countries show. In Spain, a quarter of children have a cellphone by age 10, and almost half by 11. At 12, this share rises to 75%. British media regulator Ofcom said 55% of kids in the UK owned a smartphone between ages 8 and 11, with the figure rising to 97% at age 12.

Parents and schools that have succeeded in flipping the paradigm in their communities told The Associated Press the change became possible the moment they understood that they were not alone.

In Greystones, Ireland, that moment came after all eight primary school principals in town signed and posted a letter last year that discouraged parents from buying their students smartphones. Then the parents themselves voluntarily signed written pledges, promising to refrain from letting their young kids have the devices.

“The discussion went away almost overnight,” says Christina Capatina, 38, a Greystones parent of two preteen daughters who signed the pledge and says there were almost no smartphones in schools this academic year.

Something like a consensus has built for years among institutions, governments, parents and others that smartphone use by children is linked to bullying, suicidal ideation, anxiety and loss of concentration necessary for learning. China moved last year to limit children's use of smartphones, while France has in place a ban on smartphones in schools for kids aged six to 15.

The push to control smartphones in Spain comes amid a surge in cases of children viewing online pornography, sharing videos of sexual violence, or creating “deep fake” pornographic images of female classmates using generative artificial intelligence tools. Spain's government says that 25% of kids 12 and under and 50% of kids 15 and under have been exposed to online pornography.

The dangers have produced school bans on smartphones and online safety laws. But those don’t address what kids do in off hours.

“What I try to emphasize to other principals is the importance of joining up with the school next door to you,” says Rachel Harper, principal of St. Patrick’s National School, one of the eight in Greystones to encourage parents to refrain from smartphones for their kids. “There’s a bit more strength that way, in that all the parents in the area are talking about it.”

The home isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic offered a firsthand glimpse of their kids staring at screens and getting clever about hiding what they were seeing there — and what was finding them.

But if the kids can’t have smartphones, are the parents cutting back their own online time? That’s tough, multiple parents say, because they’re managing families and work online.

Laura Borne, a Greystones mom of kids ages 5 and 6 who have never known smartphones, says she is aware of the need to model online behavior — and that she should probably cut back.

“I’m trying my best,” she says. But just as with the children she parents, the pressures are there. And they're not going away.


Kellman reported from London.

Joseph Wilson And Laurie Kellman, The Associated Press

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