Photo credit: H. Armstrong Roberts

Dial S for screen time

These middle-class tweens being forbidden phones have had iPads since they were six

Hot House

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

So here I am, like everyone with a primary school-age child, dutifully signing pledges that I absolutely will not give Hector a smartphone until he is 14 at the very youngest. In no circumstances will he rock up to Year Seven with the latest iPhone. All eminently wise.

Slight problem, Minnie and Lyra — who are now 15 and 12 — both got iPhones at eleven. I’m keeping this very quiet from the mothers at Hector’s school, immediately changing the subject when they enquire, wide-eyed, when I gave my older kids phones.

I didn’t ask for this! I never set myself up as some kind of Mother Superior, relaying messages from the dark side of puberty. It’s just one of the annoying aspects of having had a third child, the assumption that you have a clue.

Yes, I know, what was I thinking? But back then, pre-lockdowns, everyone was doing it. “Minnie will be the odd one out,” we said. It was “a safety issue”. She was off to boarding school “so it made sense”. Once Pandora’s box was open, I couldn’t change the threshold for Lyra, without lifelong sibling resentment. Now, surprise, surprise, they are indeed addicts. In fact, I spent half term dissuading Minnie from starting her own TikTok account to review other TikTok accounts. All very meta (lol).

The fact that I’ve signed a few WhatsApp petitions will mean nothing to Hector

On one level, this only hardens my resolve this time round. Nothing like seeing your daughter reject 50 selfies, to induce biblical levels of guilt and parental hand-wringing. But the fact that I’ve signed a few WhatsApp petitions will mean nothing to Hector.

Ditto, my own social standing if I were to backtrack on my pledge. Ever since toddlerhood, his mission in life has been to sniff out the slightest sibling inequality. So the news that he has to wait three years longer than his sisters is not likely to go down well.

The other thing nobody mentions, is that these middle-class tweens being forbidden phones have had iPads since they were six, for restaurants and flights. And said tablets are online (because, Netflix).

So frankly they can already look at YouTube to their heart’s content, which Hector does, in the form of a terrible Minecraft influencer whose voice haunts my dreams. Unless you’re prepared to sit with them through their daily hour of screen time, utterly defeating the object of the exercise, the stable door is already open.

Will, naturally, keeps questioning my original sin, in giving Minnie a phone at eleven. Which is really helpful. And I didn’t hear any complaints at the time — in fact he was delighted that she finally stopped lecturing him, aged ten, about “always looking at his phone”.

Also, in my defence, the entire parenting landscape has changed in the five years between Minnie’s birth and Hector’s. Truly. Even the colours. We went from nautical JoJo Maman Bebe stripes in the late noughties to that whimsical putty-teabag kiddy palette that has dominated since 2015.

Whilst I benefitted from the last gasp of Gina Ford and Supernanny with Minnie (joyous permission to ignore and confiscate), by the time Hector came along it was full on earthy-sling-parenting, with accompanying panic about sugar and screen time. Now those children are about to come of age, and we’re all freaking out about their smartphone virginity.

A side issue — I could really do without being sent another petition every two days. My screen time is up 60 per cent from looking at links to terrifying articles on tween smartphone use. Irony not lost.

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