Breaking the smartphone spell

Parents need more help

Artillery Row

“Forest” is a productivity app that helps you “stay away from your smartphone and stay focused on your work”. So called because users grow a virtual forest the longer they stay away from their phones, it perfectly captures the unreality of our times.

It was one of many typical recommendations made to parents by headteachers this summer on how to “manage children’s screen time”. In heads’ end-of-term newsletters, or via their own social media accounts, those of us who work in schools read the usual bromides about having family “screen time conversations” and ensuring that adults set good examples.

Testimonies reveal the profound anguish felt by many parents

With some reports suggesting that the average child’s digital media consumption is now up to 9 hours per day, and given increasingly persuasive evidence of their educational and emotional damage, such advice feels naive at best. Have schools got the scale of the problem posed by screen time in proportion?

At Keystone, the education company I founded, we decided to survey our families on this very question. We work with hundreds of families per year who are educating their children in the UK system. We asked them about their children’s screen time and what impact it was having on their development.

The headline responses confirm what many would have suspected. We found that 79 per cent of parents felt their children spend too much on their smartphones. 60 per cent think that their child or children’s smart device usage is sometimes or always detrimental. The average age parents intend to give their child a smartphone is 13. However, the average age parents actually give their child a smartphone is 10. Many parents identify schools as creating a compulsion to get their child a device. In-person learning, after more than two years of COVID, was strongly favoured over pre-recorded and digital learning.

So far, so unsurprising. 

More striking were the personal testimonies that reveal not just a mild disquiet but the profound sense of anguish and powerlessness felt by many parents in the face of the digital culture their children are growing up in. 

As the picture beneath shows, these comments were almost unanimous in their sentiment. They depict a childhood landscape in the UK that is deeply at odds with the wishes and values of the majority of parents and educators.

There were many other heartbreaking comments. “He is now totally addicted to his phone,” said one parent, for example, “And can’t concentrate enough to read a book or even a page. He is told by his school that it’s OK as that is what the future will be like. I am gutted as he used to be an avid reader.”

What to do about it? 

The pandemic massively accelerated digital culture in our schools

It is surely too much to hope that a UK government will enact Macron-esque protections for children in our schools anytime soon. Nor is this a problem that the market will solve at the individual level. Families who are informed about the dangers of social media addiction may wish to take a stand but anything short of a “Benedict Option” and peer pressure from other teenagers will soon melt even iron-clad parental resolution. Besides, parental instincts on the impact of screens might be sound but they need leadership on what constitutes good practice. As for hoping that teachers might reform practice, whilst individual teachers seem increasingly willing to call out the flimsiness of the digital tools they are forced to use, the unions remain in their thrall.

In contrast, the school is the perfectly sized “moral community” to turn network effects and peer pressure to positive ends and reclaim a more humane education from the digital dystopia envisioned for us by technology firms. The pandemic massively accelerated the reach of digital culture into our schools — conducted with barely-concealed glee by Big Tech, as catalogued by Ben Williamson — but now is time for a hard reset. Schools should — and could — meet parents’ justified fears with concerted action. 

Here are three simple policies that any school could enact this September:

1. Give all children a “dumbphone”. When we polled parents for their reasons for giving their child a smartphone, the safety of travelling to and from school was far and away the most common answer given. Schools could solve this overnight by giving their pupils a Nokia brick phone which does the job just as well. 

2. Draw a proper distinction between different forms of technology. Smartphones are the first villains. Next come interactive whiteboards and smartboards. Their educational virtues are slight, but they have had a devastating impact on the breadth and delivery of lesson material, and their blue haze wrecks children’s attention-spans and eyesight. (Judicious schools now use far cheaper and more reliable Visualizers or “Document Cameras” instead). Other forms of contemporary digital culture — for instance audio-recorded lectures and podcasts; or online live lessons from teachers in other parts of the country (or even world) — could be more educationally benign but are under-explored. At the same time, schools could invest more in technology production than consumption and encourage their pupils to grapple with the material and intellectual pleasures of computer science, engineering, coding and so on.

3. Use peer group effects to impact the home, too. Schools should push as far as they can to restrict smartphone and tablet use at home — e.g. by family “covenants”, digital detoxes et cetera. Having a school-wide positive peer group effect where children who have had their devices locked away (if purchased at all!) can meet up with each other on weekends and during holidays is the only chance our communities have of resisting the lure of these devices.

Many isolated UK schools, from the Heritage School in Cambridge to the Acorn School in Morden, have shown it can be done. As is well-documented, moreover, many tech titans in Silicon Valley decide to send their children to low-screen schools. Now is the time for the schools sector as a whole to support the wishes of the majority of families and defend them from what may one day be seen as the unconscionable amount of freedom we have given to technology firms to decide how our children spend their childhoods.

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