When I heard that Eton now requires its year 7s to hand in their mobile phones at bedtime, my immediate thought was I quite like the idea of a check-in, zone-out service that would confiscate my smartphone as the Love Island credits start to roll and return it in time for the 8am news bulletin. But if Eton expects its 13-year-old boarders to hand in their phones overnight, where are they the rest of the time? And why are older boys allowed to keep their phones overnight?
On schools and smartphones, I’m an enthusiastic proponent of the nanny state. After Emmanuel Macron made it a key pledge in his presidential campaign, the French government is banning mobile phones in schools altogether after September. In the UK, the decision is left to headteachers: some ban them, others take a more permissive approach.
France has got it right. It is surely beneficial for all young people to have a few hours where they are disconnected and school, which should be a distraction-free zone, is the right place to enforce that. The educational benefits make it a no-brainer: an LSE study found that banning smartphone use in schools boosted results, particularly for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The researchers estimated it was equivalent to providing an extra five days of school for these young people, something that by my (admittedly back-of-an-envelope) calculation would cost more than £1bn a year for five- to 16-year-olds in England and Wales.
This would undoubtedly be opposed by those edtech evangelists who argue that banning phones will limit rather than augment learning. But to say the evidence that technology in schools improves learning is shaky would be a polite way of putting it. Others will complain that it’s impractical to enforce: won’t schools need to install secure lockers? But a technological solution such as 4G signal-jammers would mean that parents could still reach children after school, but access to the internet during the day could be tightly regulated by teachers.
There’s a reason some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are sending their children to screen-free schools. They’re all too aware that the currency in which social media companies trade is time spent on their platforms. Developers have responded to those commercial incentives in ingenious ways: the “like” buttons that deliver the dopamine hits that keep us coming back for more; the unlimited scroll and autoplay functions that keep us hooked; the constant stream of alerts and notifications that draw us back in; the read receipts and status updates that fuel more interactions by making us feel it would be rude not to respond immediately.
A new report by the 5Rights foundation looks at how these addictive features affect young people. It highlights that excessive social media use is linked with anxiety, self-doubt and low self-esteem, aggression, bullying and sleep deprivation. “Scrolling forever gives me a sick feeling in my stomach,” one young person told researchers. “All I want to do is disconnect from my phone for a long period of time… but there are always pressures preventing me,” said another.
Nanny-statism in the form of school bans should absolutely form part of the response – this is stuff that kids deserve to be protected from – but we also need to develop children’s resilience to addictive technologies that fuel negative behaviour. That doesn’t mean simply teaching children about the dangers of social media in the classroom, which would be akin to letting loose a bunch of 17-year-olds on the roads with no more than a theory test under their belts. Instead, we should be providing safe spaces in which children can learn positive online behaviour.
CyberSmarties in Ireland is one such initiative. Its founder, Diarmuid Hudner, likens it to bike stabilisers for a social media age. It’s a locked-down, safe social network exclusively for seven- to 12-year-olds that works in partnership with primary schools, with more than 80,000 users.
It’s what a network might look like were it designed with the needs of children, rather than the commercial interests of Silicon Valley, in mind. Negative messages are flagged and children asked to reword them before they are sent. Clicking on an “I’m feeling sad” button prompts positive comments that the child’s friends have made about them to pop up. The network is monitored by a team of more than 50 trained moderators while it is operational, between 8am to 8pm, seven days a week. Moderators inform schools about any incidents of bullying so they can be proactively addressed by teachers.
The hope is that teaching positive behaviour to a pre-smartphone age-group will better equip them to cope with the world of adult social networks. The jury is still out on the long-term impacts – the network has only been running three years – but it has all but eliminated cyberbullying within the site itself.
While the government should be doing more to get social media companies to enforce age restrictions and to remove addictive features for the under-18s, it should also be piloting initiatives such as CyberSmarties. But the sad truth is that in a world where it has taken years of tireless campaigning to have sex and relationships education made compulsory in all English schools, despite the numbers of children now viewing porn online, we’re much more likely to see hand-wringing than real action.
Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is that we adults are not generally very good at modelling responsible tech behaviour for children: the average adult smartphone user touches their phone more than 2,600 times a day. I suspect it isn’t just schoolkids who’d benefit from a smartphone confiscation service.
• Sonia Sodha is an Observer columnist