Linux mobile; safer phones for children?

I have two children in primary school. They live in a world where mobile phones, and specifically smartphones, are ubiquitous. And …. that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When used ‘smartly’, mobile phones are valuable sources of information, entertainment, organisation and communication. However there are downsides, as I describe later.

Like many parents, I have considered the inevitability of my children having phones of their own. Like most parents, I have grave reservations about them having unfettered access to the whole panoply of social media and internet. How to strike the right balance between maximising the ‘good’ that can come from use of mobile phones; to limiting the ‘bad’?

Read on. This is my journey as well as yours.


  • This blog post is predicated on the negative impacts of ‘excessive’ use of social media in children and young people. In this article I’ll use ‘young people’ as a catch-all for anybody below the age of 16. I’ll use ‘guardians’ to talk about anybody who has legal responsibility for young people, which includes parents, guardians and carers.
  • Although this blog post is focused on how to mitigate the harm to young people from unfettered access to social media via mobile devices, there is potential harm to people of all ages from social media. It is precisely because I have become aware of the harm from mainstream platforms such as Instagram and Twitter that I limit my social media to open source equivalents such as Mastodon and Pixelfed (with the exception of LinkedIn for which no viable open source alternative currently exists)
  • The Linux phone ecosystem is developing at a blistering pace, even though it is predominantly volunteer-driven. This is largely due to being able to use the existing linux codebase, adapted for small touchscreen devices. This means that the current state of the art is likely to be significantly improved on a monthly basis from the date of publication of this post

The impacts of social media on young people

The science that underpins our understanding of the impacts of social media on young people is rapidly evolving, and contested. However there appear to be five main negative impacts of social media on young people:

  1. A depletion of time spent with people in the ‘real’ world (social deprivation)
  2. Disturbance to sleep
  3. Attention overload
  4. Addiction to the dopamine ‘hit’ of notifications etc
  5. Mental health impacts arising from viewing unrealistic body or lifestyle ‘visions’

There are numerous examples of research and policy on this topic. I list several below:

There is a general agreement that children should not access social media, possibly with an implicit recognition about the risks associated with social media. However there is considerable disparity about when is a ‘safe’ age to participate:

Of course, it’s one thing to suggest an age limit for using social media. It’s quite another to be able to ‘police’ it effectively.

Note that the evidence of harm on young people from using social media is not one-way. There are many studies that suggest there are positive outcomes. Positive outcomes can include obtaining positive feedback from peers or others online when posting information.

However my understanding is that the wicked patterns employed by mobile phone platforms and social media apps, to artificially boost the dopamine reward from using social media, are significant drivers of harm.

A simple mind map demonstrating the impact of mobile phones (implicitly the social media on them), to health and the environment.
Simple mind map attempting to summarise the relationship between phone use and

Why can’t/won’t existing phones act?

The two dominant phone ecosystems are Android (Google’s mobile phone platform) and iPhone (Apple’s mobile platform). Both these platforms are inherently unsuited for tackling issues relating to children’s health and social media, because:

  • They derive significant revenue from their own services (e.g. YouTube, various Apple products)
  • They harvest data from users that can be sold to third parties, or used to directly target advertising (known as ‘advert personalisation’)
  • Phones offer the opportunity to present Google as the default search engine, cementing Google’s dominance in the search/advertising space. Apple is also a beneficiary of this, receiving large annual payments to have Google as the default search engine on the iPhone platform.

If Apple and Google restrict the ability of children to access social media accounts, they reduce their own income, and they reduce the number of years which people interact with advertising via social media platforms.

Companies have a legal obligation to maximise their return to shareholders. Their legal obligations to children are far less clear. It seems likely that social media companies will therefore drag their heels on making their platforms safer, if there is a resultant reduction in their income.

A flowchart showing the data collected by various social media providers
A flowchart showing the data collected by various social media providers.

Our choices

Society at large, and guardians in particular, have a few choices they can make in response to understanding the potential harm from young people accessing social media.

  1. Do nothing and hope that young people will be ok (business as usual)
  2. Petition social media companies to be better at protecting the mental health of our young people
  3. Improve regulation
  4. Make different choices for young people, such as:
    • Allowing them a ‘dumb’ phone rather than a smartphone
    • Provide them with a smartphone that does not facilitate engagement with the most damaging social media platforms

Choice 1 is likely to be the default choice for most people. Even if guardians are aware of some of the risks for young people, it is hard to resist constant pressure, including peer pressure. I have great sympathy with anybody who goes down this road. No judgement here.

I judge Choice 2 as unlikely to be very effective. If any changes are made, they are likely to be the smallest necessary to satisfy public demand. This is because the mobile phone platforms answer predominantly to shareholders, and not to the public.

Choice 3 is possible, but I fear regulatory capture in the UK, and the ability of social media companies to lobby to reduce the impacts of regulation, and then to innovate their way around regulation.

Choice 4 places an unfair burden on guardians when the problem is systemic, society-wide and has ramifications way beyond individual families. Nonetheless, if we don’t have faith in social media companies to sacrifice profitability for the good of society; and if we don’t have faith in regulators or regulation to make a reasonable intervention that cannot be quickly circumvented; then we are left with Choice 4

Some people choose to not allow their children to have ‘smart phones’. This is a viable option, although potentially a difficult one for many guardians to adopt. The peer pressure on young people to have a smart phone and to participate in social media and messaging is intense. There is an undoubted consequence of ‘missing out’ (FOMO) that would be felt by the young person, although I am keen to stress to my own children the JOMO (Joy of missing out). Although this is potentially more than compensated for by improved well-being, the stress and conflict within the family unit could be challenging.

Whilst I think that the option of providing a ‘dumb’ phone to young people is a good one, I also have a philosophical reservation about it. If smart phones are so useful and valuable to adults, should we be denying their many positive uses to young people – as long as there is a plausible way to mitigate the harm?

This is the alternative I will be exploring through the rest of this blog post. It is to use a smart phone that does not facilitate access to the most damaging social media platforms which could be one way to support the call by Esther Ghey who has called for teenagers to be ‘protected from smartphones‘, proposing a ban on social media for under-16s.

This alternative already exists in the form of linux phones.

Linux phones

What is Linux?

Linux is a family of software that enables computers, phones and digital hardware to operate. It’s the software that underpins most of the digital infrastructure globally, and can be used as a highly viable (or superior!) alternative to Windows or Mac on laptops or desktop machines. I have been using linux on my laptops since 2005. Whilst it runs brilliantly on new hardware, it is also a good solution for older machines, as the hardware requirements are lower than needed by Windows or MacOS.

History of linux phones

The smartphone era began with the iPhone, and Apple continued to dominate the early years of smartphone technology.

Seeing the opportunity to grow their advertising and data harvesting operation, Google started to develop the Android operating system to compete with Apple’s iPhone.

I was a very early adopter of Android in 2010 (HTC Hero), and continued to champion Google as a more ethical (and low-cost) alternative to Apple. How naive!!

As the Android ecosystem expanded, the focus for Google appeared to be less about improving the functionality, and more about how much data could be captured from users.

People who are interested in Linux and alternatives to ‘mainstream’ phones started developing alternatives. Although this was the case from as early as the mid-2000’s, the development started in earnest in the late 2010’s driven by companies such as Pine64 and Purism.

Linux phones generally try to use the existing ‘mainstream’ Linux software and optimise it for use on mobile devices, thereby making use of an existing huge and powerful set of tools.

How do Linux phones limit exposure to social media platforms?

Although most social media platforms are available via web browsers, this form of access is inherently less addictive or distracting than the app versions.

In other words, if you are able to use only the browser version of any social media platform, your health and well-being outcomes are likely to be better than using the app versions.

‘Wired’ has a good article on web vs app which is worth a look; it basically boils down to:

  • Much more limited access to your data (if any)
  • No notifications
  • Slight increase in friction to use the app, decreasing the temptation to doomscroll
  • Fewer terrible features
  • Fewer (or no) adverts

Given that there are no native apps for social media platforms for Linux phones, it follows that Linux phones are inherently safer for young people, and therefore a better choice.

Where are we now with Linux phones?

Sadly we’re not yet in a place where you can rush off to a phone shop and demand a Linux phone. Linux can be installed on a number of devices, typically older ones which have chips that can more easily be understood so that the software works on them.

The OnePlus 6 or 6T seem to be reasonably well supported, and I can personally attest for the Pinetab 2 tablet if you’re after a Linux tablet.

However there are a number of more modern devices such as Fairphone 4 and 5 that work very well with Linux, and more such as the Pixel 6 being actively developed.

There are several places you can go to find out which type of Linux works on which type of phone, including:

If you want to do some research about Linux on phones generally, I suggest the following:

  • Tuxphones – general news site for anything related to mobile linux
  • Linux on Mobile– Fab resource for all sorts of platforms

I bought a Fairphone 3 on ebay for under £70 (lucky!) and proceeded to install Ubuntu Touch. The installation process is relatively straightforward (there’s an automated installer), and the outcome is an entirely useable phone that doesn’t track you, and can’t install the apps that are likely the most damaging for young people whilst still being extremely functional and high performing.

I am also investigating a Pixel 6 phone with Droidian installed.

My aim overall is to identify a phone that has high functionality, low cost and that I would personally be happy to use as a daily driver, before selecting it as something I would provide for my own children.

I can see that the Fairphone 3 running Ubuntu Touch would definitely meet my criteria. I will have to report back on the Pixel 6 which is currently in ‘alpha’ and not useable for normal phone activity.


I would like to thank everybody who has ever contributed to an open source project, whether through code, advocacy, policy, translation, donation or any other method.

I encourage everybody to participate in the open source community. There is a home for you, whatever your level of experience, skill set or circumstance.


8 responses to “Linux mobile; safer phones for children?”

  1. Dyfrig Williams avatar

    @david Mae hwnna'n gwneud i fi eisiau prynu ffôn Linux fel oedolyn!

      1. Dyfrig Williams avatar

        @davidoclubb @david Mae'n gwneud i mi feddwl am bethau. Siŵr o fod colli'r apps negeseuon byddai'r prif golled, ond byddai'r wê yn iawn i bopeth arall

        1. David Clubb 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿🇪🇺🏳️‍🌈 avatar

          @dyfrig @david Fod yn onest ti ddim angen colli bron dim byd; jyst defnyddio fersiynau gwe. Fel enghraifft, efo Ubuntu Touch mae 'web app' Telegram yn gweithio hollol fel yr app go-iawn

          1. Dyfrig Williams avatar

            @davidoclubb @david Hmmm, fi wedi bod yn meddwl symud i Telegram. WhatsApp yw'r unig app Facebook neu Gogledd dwi dal yn ddefnyddio achos yr effaith rhwydwaith. Mae'n amser am ymgyrch arall o berswadio!

          2. David Clubb 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿🇪🇺🏳️‍🌈 avatar

            @dyfrig @david Telegram yn well na WhatsApp. Nid fod dwi'n arbenigwr ond dwi'n cymryd fod mae Signal a Matrix yn hyd yn oed well. Dwi ar y tri 😂

          3. Dyfrig Williams avatar

            @davidoclubb @david Mae popeth yn well na WhatsApp! Yr unig rheswm dwi arno fe yw bod pawb yn cyfathrebu arno, ond byddai lot well gen i ddewis amgen!

I’m a strategic, long-term thinker who specialises in information management, sustainability, digital strategy and governance. Get in touch if you’d like to chat about how I can help your organisation prepare for the future.

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