When it comes to social media, it can be hard to keep up. As parents, we can feel quickly out of our depth. First it was text-speak, then emojis, then memes. Now it’s the turn of TikTok Slang, and things are getting more ever-more tricky. If the past felt vaguely navigable; the present is a foreign country: they do things differently here. 

If you have a teenager in your household, try asking them to define the terms “skibbiby” or “Ohio”; try “mewing” (running your finger along your chin) and see if they recognise the action; or sidle up to them while they are eating their favourite snack and ask for your “Fanum tax”. If you understand any of these terms, congratulations! You are officially down with the kids. If you are frantically Googling, good luck! You are heading into uncharted territory.

As with any adventure into a new realm, there are delights to be found, and there are dangers. Self-harm, feelings of anxiety, feelings of isolation have all risen sharply, and the rise can be traced back to a specific moment in time: 2012, the advent of the smartphone. The stats are undeniable; the evidence cannot be ignored – and yet we choose to ignore it, so severe is our addiction, so engrained is the habit. 

You will have heard of the Smartphone Free Childhood – a now-global movement (ironically  powered by WhatApp) to protect children from the dangers of social media by empowering parents and schools to “change the norm”. Clare Ferneyhough, one of the two friends responsible for this hugely popular movement, is on a mission. Clare is a pioneer parent; she is attempting to go (boldly) where few have gone before. When I listened to her speak at an event last week, I was not surprised to find, therefore, that she is also an alumna of Brighton Girls. Clare told us how rapidly the movement had taken hold, how quickly it had gained traction with MPs, and how it had arrived at a dead end once the Tech Giants became involved. Conversations ceased overnight. Back to square one.  

The solution? Speak to schools and suggest that they tackle the problem by banning smartphones. 

The problem with this solution? 

As a school, we did this four years ago, but the challenges remain. 

As long as children have access to social media, before and after school, or via iPads or other devices, they will find their way into new worlds and sleepwalk into new nightmares. My son, when given access to YouTube, watches people making sweets, refashioning old trainers, or mining for gemstones. But he is a 10-year old boy; the algorithms are being kind to him – for now. A teenage girl may be at the mercy of different algorithms: there are shocking stats on the number of seconds that elapse on TikTok before viewers are served content relating to suicide, self harm and disordered eating. 

There isn’t an obvious answer. You could buy a brick phone (I have my eye on a BoringPhone, the latest version of which comes with the tagline, “Get out of your phone and into your life”), but we would all need to commit to make an impact. In the meantime, our solution in school is to keep children busy, challenge them to get outdoors as much as possible, and continue to educate them so that they make positive choices online.  

This week, one of our Wellbeing Weeks, Year 8s have been in Boughrood, surrounded by green fields; Year 9 have been challenging themselves at ‘Branching Out’; Year 7s spent a day building dens in the woods and, today, have been enjoying watersports on Hove Lagoon and Year 10 students, as I write this, are taking on the NUTS Challenge assault course.

If we can’t (or won’t) remove the smartphone, we can at least provide distractions to entice this generation out of their phones and into their lives.