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HOLLY WAINWRIGHT: The kids are going to blame us for this.

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A neat black marker-pen grid divided my little son’s bare back into squares. The practitioner was about to start pricking. Billy, two years old and miserable with visits to uniformed people wielding needles, was wriggling and shouty.

"He’s going to need to hold still," said the nurse, in the sort of flat tone that suggested squirmy children were, like morning traffic and printer jams, the least interesting irritations of his day.

I handed Billy my iPhone. There was a game that instantly silenced him as he popped rising primary-coloured bubbles with his little chubby finger. There was a video, where an animated star sang Twinkle Twinkle in the voice of an American tween, that would hypnotise him into stillness. I don’t remember which it was.

"Children this age shouldn’t be on phones," said the nurse, as he began to prick, my boy so engrossed he didn’t flinch. "It's absolutely terrible for their brain development."

I remember the feeling. A hot kind of shame. A surge of scratchy irritation. A rush of righteous indignation. I said, "I know. I’m terrible. But, you know, sometimes, whatever works."

Whatever works.

Phones worked.

Got teenagers who stay up all night using their phones? Watch this. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

They worked when I was in a shop and my stroller-bound child was screaming to be set free to run havoc down the aisles.

They worked, along with their older, cooler friend iPad, when I needed just a few more minutes sleep on another 5am wake-up.

They worked when I wanted to have a coffee with a friend. Or a glass of wine with Mothers' group. They worked when I needed to answer a work email. Or have a shower.

They worked in the allergy clinic when my kid needed to hold still.

I got my first iPhone the year my first child was born, 2010. My daughter has grown up alongside one. Competing with one. Coveting one.

She's 14 now, so she lives in one. Obviously. It's how things are.

A historical image of my actual child. In an actual washing basket. On an actual iPad.


Fourteen years of mainstream technological integration. Her generation has never known a world before the smart phone. The day they are given one of their very own (mum’s old one, back to factory-settings) is a profound moment of transition. A rite of passage for a culture bad at milestones.

The generation before hers, the Zs, came of age with them in hand. When I was distracting my son with the bubble game under the judgmental eyes of a medical professional, around eight years ago, they were discovering what it felt like to grow up on social media. And look, the feedback's in, and it's not… great.

If you were to wrestle my iPhone from my hand today and open the Photos app, what you would see are about 10 screen grabs of text looped and circled and highlighted in fluro yellow edit pen, from an article that scared the shit out of parents like me.


It’s called End The Phone-based Childhood Now, and it’s in The Atlantic, and it’s by Johnathan Haidt.

We talked about it on Mamamia Out Loud. You can go and read it for yourself, if you're brave enough, but the TLDR is this:

- A generation has outsourced most of life's experiences to their phones. Technology companies have fed them up on on "exciting virtual activities", engineered for engagement, "that are nothing like the real-world experiences young brains are primed to expect".

- The average American teen spends 5 hours a day on a social media platform. Closer to 7 on their screen, if you include messaging, watching video and gaming.

- These hours have been taken from almost everywhere else. From sleep. From socialising. From playing. From studying. From messing around and taking silly risks. From… being bored.

- Generation Z have experienced more of the world inside it that outside it. They are untrusting and risk averse IRL, unlikely to favour encounters they can’t control, draft, plan.

- Algorithms have addicted them (and, cough, us), to a bottomless scroll of mini-dramas that fuel outrage cycles. This explains why, when I ask my teenager what she and her friends talk about, she immediately answers "drama".


There's so much more but likely you, like me, are already overwhelmed. The thing is, we know all this. We know it about our kids and we know it about ourselves. Anyone who just lived through the fever-dream fortnight of faux concern and full-blown conspiracy centreing around the Princess Of Wales has just seen micro-drama outrage in full flow, and likely got swept along with at least some of it.

My phone’s full of screenshots of Jonathan Haidt’s Atlantic essay.


Haidt's piece makes some suggestions for solutions, some about individual choice (don't give your kid a phone until at least 14, try to recruit a cabal of like-minded parents to form a micro-community of similarly deprived teens), some about big-picture systemic shifts (tech companies taking age-gating seriously, being held financially accountable for algorithmic harms), but all my notes and screen-shots have left me with the uneasy realisation that really, we’ve fucked it. Gen X have fucked it.

When my daughter's talking to her AI therapist about all this in a decade or so, will she view the way we all willingly placed the iPads in the soft paws of toddlers the same way I view my grandma putting a splash of brandy in the bottle of a colicky baby?

Will my son subconsciously recall that allergy test, link it to his inability to self-soothe without a screen and feel how I do about 1970s parents driving home drunk from the club, a child on their knee working the pedals and turning the wheel?

They'll blame us. They already do. My daughter, dripping with ancient wisdom at 14, tuts away about "little kids" allowed to roam TikTok’s For You pages unimpeded, stumbling across performative sadness and perfectly round buttocks. If it hasn't already occurred to her that maybe she's also too young to have already figured out a strategy for deciding if that person she sort-of knows is serious about how much they don’t want to be alive right now, it will.


We handed them the keys to the fastest of cars with the shopping-trolley wheels because no-one told us not to and and everyone else was doing it. It made our lives easier. And also, let's be brutally honest. If they were looking at their screens, we were free to look at ours.

Now we're unpicking it all and wondering if it's too late. Haidt is only one of the many raising the red flags and waving them madly, hoping we look up from our screens long enough to notice.

And it is too late, really, for many of us. It’s not realistic for parents to form little pacts around something so ubiquitous when their circumstances are so wildly different. So I'm trying to push something subversive in my house that feels more manageable. On me, as much as the kids.

It’s this simple thing: As much real life as possible, please. As many things that can be touched and tasted and felt as we can manage. Good trouble, the kind that happens out in the world, not alone in our rooms. Sensations that can't (yet) be replicated by algorithms. Land, water, sky. Moving actual bodies. Conversations and arguments and jokes. Small talk with strangers.

It’s a filter. Should we let the kids do that? Is it real life? Then, yes.

The screens are going nowhere. But real life probably is. It might not be too late to learn how to savour it.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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