‘I’m not going if I can’t have my phone.’
Before every trip to the Farm, a member of the Jamie’s Farm team will visit the young people and their staff at school. It’s an opportunity to meet young people in their own space first, for introductions, to enthuse the group about their upcoming adventure, to answer questions about unknowns and to soothe some anxieties. It’s also a time to set out expectations: What will it be like? What can I do there? What can’t I do there?
You can probably imagine the first response from most young people when they realise that one of the things they are being asked to do is give up their phone for a week: No. Way.
Snapchat streaks are a regular feature in these initial conversations: ‘If I can’t have my phone, I’ll lose all my streaks!’ For those who don’t know, it’s a competitive points system, which logs how many days in a row one user and another exchange Snapchat messages (I think). It’s back to zero as soon as you miss a day, which I get the impression is quite a big deal and which has resulted in Snapchat receiving considerable criticism for its addictive nature.
‘But what about my friends? How will I talk to them? I won’t know what’s going on.’ Many young people have had phones since they were 8 or 9 years old without ever giving them up for longer than a single day, so the idea of disconnecting completely for five days feels almost impossible.
And they are right to feel this way at first: it is hard. Jamie’s Farm is a life swap. Young people have to work hard to allow themselves to engage with being at Jamie’s Farm and all that it entails. They have to be brave to give something new and very different a try. We want them to have time at the Farm to focus on themselves, to be reflective and to experience a sense of peacefulness and calm. Many have chaotic lives, with drama erupting between friendships and families. With phones out of the picture, it’s much easier for young people to give time to themselves and to focus on what they are doing well and what they’d like support with. Of course, we are able to contact families throughout the week if it’s necessary. Visiting teachers usually send a message to confirm the group’s safe arrival and send updates and photographs throughout the week, although some join their students in going screen-free by locking their phones away for the duration. Parents can contact the farm and vice versa in extenuating circumstances, but the key is for the responsibility and any associated pressure or worry to be held by the adults this week.
Living together as a family for a week is also an opportunity to develop social skills by getting to know one another, communicating face-to-face and playing games together. It’s a chance to really enjoy the beautiful views and the way it feels to be stood in a field, calm, listening to nothing but the occasional bleat of a sheep, instead of focusing on which filter would help the beautiful view get the most likes on Instagram.
Aliyah is a year 10 girl from a school in Birmingham. One Tuesday, after one night at the Farm and two meals round the table, she shared with me the biggest challenge she was experiencing about Farm life so far: without phones, people actually have to talk to each other. At mealtimes, we sit around the table as one big family. We chat to one another, ask questions and tell jokes and riddles. At first, it can feel uncomfortable for those who are used to eating meals alone at home with their phone or a games console for company. Part of Aliyah longs for her phone during mealtimes at the Farm. She admitted to hiding behind her phone when she’s in group situations. If she had it in her hand, she could pretend to be too busy for making new friends. She could disguise her anxiety about talking to other people, being judged for what she says and for whether anyone chooses to talk to her. Without her phone, she is completely exposed. She has to join in with conversations to be part of the group. Without her phone, we can hear her voice and learn that she is charming and intelligent and funny, qualities which show themselves a little more every time we are together at the table. On a walk at the end of the week, Aliyah tells me what she will miss most about being at the Farm when she returns home: it’s the mealtimes. She has loved having company here, being able to share anecdotes about each day with everyone in the group and being able to make one another laugh.
Despite the anxiety before children arrive, phoneless, at the Farm, the feedback from young people about this aspect of their experience is almost exclusively positive. A few months ago, one young man named Jermaine breathed an enormous sigh of relief when I asked him what it was like to be away from his phone: ‘Having a phone is like having a full-time job!’ He explained to me the constant pressure of multiple social media platforms which put young people in a permanent digital spotlight. ‘You are constantly checking your phone because you have to make sure you’ve replied to everything. Every time you post something or comment on something, you have to make sure you sound good or funny and that you say something that will impress people. It’s about fashion, too. You have to post lots of pictures of yourself and always make sure that you’re wearing the latest fashion and clothes that look expensive and look good. People will judge you for anything.’ Children talk of feeling relaxed without their phones, without worrying about other people or the pressure of what others are thinking about them.
Jermaine recently joined me for a pre-visit meeting with some other young people from his school before their visit to the Farm this month. I asked him what he could tell his peers to reassure them about the techno-detox they were about to embark on: ‘You’re all friends here, right?’ Nods and murmurs of ‘yeah’ around the room respond. ‘Well this is a chance to REALLY be with friends and to make the most of doing stuff together. It’s not just about being associates on Insta or Snapchat; you’ll actually get to talk to each other and work together and get to know what each other’s about instead of just hanging out with your phones without really talking to anyone.’
Most young people are surprised by how well they manage – and even enjoy – their separation from mobile phones. ‘It’s actually calm’ and ‘It’s actually OK’ are frequent responses when I ask young people about how they are finding it. They often comment on being too busy to notice or worry because they are having fun.
It’s hard to measure exactly what impact a visit to Jamie’s Farm has on a teenager’s mobile phone use in the long-term. However, many young people comment on spending less time on their phones when we see them at follow-up visits in school, six weeks after their trip to the Farm. When I ask young people to tell me something they feel proud of since leaving the Farm, they might share with me that they talk to more people now and have made new friends. Or that they’ve taken up a sport or joined an after-school club. They are communicating and they are ‘doing stuff together… instead of just hanging out with phones without really talking to anyone’.
Written by Katie Meanwell, Therapy Coordinator at Jamie’s Farm Hereford.
Katie taught English and Drama at St George’s School in Maida Vale, where she began learning all about Jamie’s Farm through pupils who benefited from their valuable experiences here. Katie first came to the farm as a volunteer during the summer holidays, before later joining the team to help set-up Jamie’s Farm Hereford in 2015. As Therapy Coordinator, Katie leads many group meetings and has personalised therapeutic one to one conversations with all young people who visit the Farm, in order to help them piece together pathways for their future success on return to school.