"People are finding their voice": Parents bring Smartphone Free Childhood Campaign to Derbyshire schools

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A group of Derbyshire Dales parents are banding together in the hope of persuading their entire community to limit schoolchildren’s access to smartphones and social media due to their impact on mental health and educational attainment.

The Smarthphone Free Childhood campaign has been taking off across the country over the past few months, and now a local organising group has been established to deliver the message to families in and around Matlock, Wirksworth and Bakewell.

A public information event at the Arc Leisure Centre in Matlock last month proved such a success that it is being repeated at the same venue on Thursday, June 13, starting at 8pm.

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The three lead organisers are Laura Hickinbotham, a doctor specialising in child and adolescent mental health, secondary school teacher Lauren Goodfellow, and technology entrepreneur Lisa Barley.

From left, Laura Hickinbotham, Lisa Barley and Lauren Goodfellow are spearheading the local campaign against smartphones in childhood. (Photo: Contributed)From left, Laura Hickinbotham, Lisa Barley and Lauren Goodfellow are spearheading the local campaign against smartphones in childhood. (Photo: Contributed)
From left, Laura Hickinbotham, Lisa Barley and Lauren Goodfellow are spearheading the local campaign against smartphones in childhood. (Photo: Contributed)

Laura, who lives in Matlock with her three pre-teen boys, said: “The movement is trying to bring this issue to the forefront of parents’ attention and show that, as children approach secondary school, the age is creeping down when they might be socially excluded or bullied for not having a smartphone.

“Any one family can’t be in this on their own. We want parents to feel there’s some solidarity, and empower them to speak up about this. If everyone in town is in the same boat, it makes it a lot easier on children themselves.”

The national campaign began in February 2024 in a Suffolk parents’ WhatsApp group and spread rapidly.

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Last month, 20 primary school headteachers in St Albans, Hertfordshire, released a joint statement outlining their ambition to become the first smartphone-free city for under-14s.

Laura said: “That’s what we’re aiming for locally. It’s not a legal requirement, but it’s a cultural switch where schools can say they don’t condone this.”

The growth of the campaign has coincided with news stories such as the murder of teenager Brianna Ghey, and her mother’s calls for a legal age limit on smartphones and social media – but also an emerging body of evidence in works such as The Anxious Generation, a book by American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

Laura said: “He goes into all the reasons why there have been huge changes since smartphones came out, such as increased levels of anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide, eating disorders and sleep problems.

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“Social media has had a horrendous effect, particularly on girls. I see it all the time in my job.”

Writing in this newspaper recently, Derbyshire Dales MP Sarah Dines – currently running for re-election – signalled her support for legal restrictions.

She said: “All sensible people would agree that children should not have access to drugs, they should not be able to buy alcohol, cigarettes or drive a car, and yet as a society we seem to have turned a blind eye to our children having access to what I believe is an incredibly dangerous online world.”

Without legislation to force the issue, for now the group are looking to get schools singing from the same hymn sheet, and to reinforce the message all the parents and carers.

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Laura said: “These technologies cause problems in school too. Children get hundreds of notifications a day and all that disturbance is causing issues with attention and concentration.

“There’s research that shows where schools have a policy of taking phones away every morning, grades have gone up, but what we’re hearing locally is that children are accessing their phones during the day even where they’re supposedly not allowed.”

Those driving the campaign ultimately want to see smartphone use limited to over-14s and social media to over-16s at the area’s three secondary schools – Highfields, Anthony Gell and Lady Manners.

However, given certain complications with older children – who might require apps for homework, for instance – the campaign is starting with feeder primary schools.

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Laura said: “We want to create pacts between parents so that there isn’t that peer pressure between children – either to say that no one will have smartphones, or that they will use simpler, retro phones without internet access.”

Having invited school leaders to attend next week’s public event, the group has also arranged a sit-down with senior staff at the All Saints’ Federation in Matlock, and have had some interest from Highfields too.

Sarah Clark, chief executive of the Derby Diocese Academy Trust, which All Saints is part of, said: “Like many primary schools across the UK we do not allow mobile phones on the premises and any devices brought into school need to be handed into reception at the start of the day and returned at home time.

“We understand that mobile phones are important for safety and communication, and we encourage parents to discuss appropriate usage with their children.”

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She added: “As a trust we recognise that excessive use of mobile phones can negatively impact children's attention spans, sleep patterns and mental health and the distraction caused by screentime can hinder their academic progress and social development.

“We will always encourage the families we work with to create an environment that fosters concentration, face-to-face interaction, and a healthier balance between technology and other activities.”

Around 20 parents attended last month’s public meeting, surpassing organisers’ expectations, and a local Facebook group has since swelled to around 70.

Laura said: “People have been sharing it around and finding their voice on the issue. At the end of the last meeting there was a brilliant discussion where people brought up particular problems or fears they have.

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“The group will take shape as we progress, but we’re going to try and hold monthly meetings which will be a mix of information sharing and mutual support.”

To learn more about the national campaign, visit www.smartphonefreechildhood.co.uk.

For the local organising group, find Smartphone Free Childhood Matlock on Facebook.

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