Gillian Keegan’s announcement of a ban on mobile phones in schools seems timely and helpful. It unambiguously signals that the pervasive nature of smartphone technology has no place in our classrooms or playgrounds.
However, it does little to address the real problem. Any headteacher worth their salt already enforces firm rules on phones and the majority of parents (in principle at least) support tight regulation within schools.
If the problem in 2023 was that mobile phones distract children from learning in school, Keegan’s announcement would be the solution. Sadly, it isn’t.
Smartphone use is an addiction with profound personal and social consequences that stretch well beyond the classroom and into every segment of our lives. Its impact is most profound on the youngest addicts: our students.
Over the past three years, the likelihood of a young person having a mental health issue has increased by 50 per cent. Eating disorders among children have doubled in the past six years, an increase the children’s commissioner suggests may have been fuelled by children spending more time online during the pandemic.
Although the causes are multifactorial, a growing body of evidence suggests that excessive smartphone use is a significant factor in many adverse mental health, physical health, developmental and educational problems. The negative impact of smartphone use on attention span and its generation of addictive-type dependencies, is well documented.
Widespread use of smartphones among children and teens has tragically become ubiquitous. A 2022 Ofcom report revealed that 91 per cent of UK children aged 11 and over owned a phone, almost all of which were smartphones. This is more than a classroom distraction; it is a profoundly concerning addiction, enabled by adults, that is shattering the lives of many of its users.
Ironically, school hours are probably the time when young people are least at risk. I regularly speak to students struggling with their studies about their habits outside of school. What I see, to a child, is utterly appalling. Even some of my school’s most gifted students spend more time each week on TikTok than they do in school.
All headteachers have deeply shocking stories of how smartphone proliferation is damaging young lives. They range from the previously outgoing child who now self-harms to those who are school refusers because parents struggle to navigate the priorities of the real world with the online one.
Many of these children fail to make the threshold for CAHMs and counselling referrals; they are the silent majority who are being failed by our inability to diagnose and treat the actual issue.
Keegan’s announcement and the proposed online safety bill seek to protect children in school specifically and in society more broadly from accessing the most egregious online content. However, many fear that these controls are unlikely even to scratch the surface of the problem.
We urgently need to develop laws that can actually protect young people. The Safe Screens campaign proposes the introduction of a tobacco-style regulatory framework for smartphones, calling for restrictions on the supply of smartphones to children so that only ‘Smartphone Lite’ devices could be sold to young people up to the age of 16. These devices would be stripped down, capable only of making phone calls, sending basic SMS messages and utilising non-addictive informational apps such as maps, weather and travel timetables. Bold leadership could see the introduction of these devices in a year-by-year phased manner in the same way that New Zealand is phasing out smoking.
Keegan’s announcement will make little difference to the running of schools or the education of our students. In fact, it distracts from the real battleground beyond our school walls.
If politicians of all hues are serious about addressing the tsunami of mental health issues swelling in the school-age population, they need to tackle the source of the problem: the fact that our young people have these phones in the first place.
This article was written in collaboration with UsForThem in support of their Safe Screens campaign