Are smartphones a social issue?

B-but we loves the shiny screens, Precious, we loves 'em...
29 February 2024

The mayor of French village Seine-Port, where scrolling in public is banned. Via Le Parisien.

• Attitudes to smartphone use are shifting significantly.
• Some parental campaigners want significant bands on screen-time for children.
• One French town has banned scrolling in public – for everyone!

Smartphone use may be in its biggest decline since the devices entered common use. Or at least, attitudes towards how the technology impacts day-to-day life are increasingly unfavorable.

Back when owning an iPhone was almost as inconceivable for most people as trying out the Vision Pro is today, the idea that living for 30 days without a smartphone or any other device being within the self-challenge subgenre of movie would have been laughable.

Now, when the idea of going out for a day without a smartphone in your pocket seems almost ludicrous, a movie by Alex Lykos, following his experience of going cold turkey off his devices and called Disconnect Me was just released.

Could you live a month without your smartphone use? Would you be sane at the end of it?

Alex Lykos lived for a month without his smart devices. Via IMDB.

As much as it reeks of Western privileges (although really, others in the genre like Supersize Me could be accused of the same), Disconnect Me attempts to identify the alienation that disconnecting now represents. Although the Guardian’s review of the movie criticizes some sweeping comments made by Lykos about the impact of technology on children, it concedes that “Lykos gives an affable and personal survey of different issues associated with smartphone use, from self-esteem to attention span.”

And we are far from short of evidence that the technologically driven world we inhabit has repercussions for every generation.

We all know smartphone use is bad for kids

The well-documented ill-effects of using smartphones and other technology from a young age range from physical strain and eye troubles to increased rates of unhappiness in younger and younger children.

Digital screen time is linked to the development of myopia in children and teenagers, and is also linked to dry eye syndrome, digital eyestrain and poor head and neck postures.

Does smartphone use lead to eyestrain? Why yes. Yes, it does.


A slew of lawsuits recently filed against Meta also shine a light on the types of content to which children are exposed on social media, and the impact it has on their wellbeing. One such lawsuit in the US state of New Mexico alleges that Meta “proactively served and directed [children] to egregious, sexually explicit images through recommended users and posts – even where the child has expressed no interest in this content.”

Whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed internal studies showed platforms like Instagram led children to anorexia-related content.

Over in the UK, the government’s Department for Education has confirmed plans to ban use of mobile phones in English schools, issuing statutory guidance on how to do so – guidance that unions have said is already in place in a vast majority of schools: try having a conversation with a child while they scroll TikTok if you can’t imagine why.

Esther Ghey, the mother of Brianna Ghey, a schoolgirl who was murdered on February 11, 2023, believes her daughter was vulnerable after spending so much time online. This month, she’s called for  a complete ban on social media access for under-16s.

All that and the alarming links between the time children spend on smartphones and social media and the likelihood they’ll experience bullying, problems of low self-esteem and even self-harm, mean it’s easy to understand why smartphones aren’t conducive to a learning atmosphere.

Research from the London School of Economics found test scores for schoolchildren in Birmingham, London, Leicester and Manchester rose when their schools introduced mobile phone bans.

Making some kind of change to improve all of this isn’t an unpopular idea.

Thousands of UK parents have joined calls for a smartphone-free childhood led by two mothers in response to their fears around the norm of giving children smart devices when they go to secondary school (aged 11 or 12).

After Clare Ferynhough and Daisy Greenwell’s WhatsApp group Smartphone-Free Childhood was promoted on Instagram, over a thousand other parents joined overnight.

Smartphones expose children to a “world that they are not ready for” because they can access pornography and content on self-harm and suicide, which can have a detrimental impact on their mental health, Fernyhough said.

Shocked by the support, Fernyhough said she’d thought it was an “extreme view,” forming the group for solidarity among a minority. This view isn’t exactly surprising: Ofcom research found that 91% of children in the UK own a smartphone by the time they’re 11 and 44% by the time they’re nine.

Changing this is the only way to combat smartphone use in children; being the only one without a smartphone in a class full of other children with one would be alienating and unfair. “That’s a nightmare and no one will do that to their child. But if 20%, 30%, even 50% of kids are turning up with parents making that decision, they are in a much better position.”

Not good for adults, either

We might be keen to overlook the negative effects of smartphone use on young people because we so want to ignore them in ourselves. Sure, children are playing outside less, but have you noticed the quieter streets from around the edges of your own smartphone?

A teen with one earphone constantly in is less conspicuously rude if you’re distracted by your own scrolling.

One French village has decided to take this all more seriously, banning people from scrolling their phones in public. From a hairdresser in the village, Ludivine, a cardiologist, told the Guardian that “everyone is struggling with too much screen time.”

Smartphone use - is it harmful for adults too?

Signs outside a school in Seine-Port. Via the Guardian

Seine-Port has a population below 2,000 and voted yes in a referendum to restrict smartphone use in public. The rules for children are stricter: no screens of any kind in the morning, no screens in bedrooms, before bed or during meals.

If parents of teenagers sign a written agreement not to provide their child with a smartphone before the age of 15, the town hall will provide the child with a handset for calls only – the old-fashioned sort.

A postal worker from the town, Gabriel, said he’s against the move. The 20-year-old said that he spends five hours a day on his phone, “which [he thinks] is reasonable.”

“You can’t ban knowledge at your fingertips.”

All of this does indicate a shift in attitudes towards what was once welcomed as the key to a better future. Post-covid, there was some pushback against the move online caused by social distancing and there’s reluctance from many to buy into the smartphone ordering and payment systems that cropped up as restaurants and shops reopened.

Further, as more and more gets done by smartphones, proof that they’re superior to the ‘real’ things they replace gets harder to show. Sure, the GPS on your phone makes navigating a new city far simpler than using a map did, but the iBeer gimmick got old fast.

People are increasingly dubious about online services being offered in place of “real” ones – and of the companies that own them. The reign of the tech genius is very much over – heralded by Musk and Zuckerberg’s distinct uncoolness – and, tentatively, screens are falling from favor.

That’s not to say anyone’s about to ditch their smartphone, but the concept of an online future is, at the very brink of being realized, less and less appealing.