A leading girls’ independent school has asked its pupils and their parents to sign a contract promising to reduce smartphone use at home.
The school said that it wanted to help families to reset digital habits by requesting them to ban phones during mealtimes and to use commuting time to “read, listen to a book or talk”. The terms of the voluntary contract include a promise to implement a phone-free weekend or a digital holiday.
The two-page “Family Phone Pledge” was sent to parents of pupils at South Hampstead High School, whose alumnae include Helena Bonham Carter and Rabbi Julia Neuberger. It was endorsed by Victoria Bingham, the head teacher, but drawn up by sixth-form pupils studying psychology who said that they were alarmed by their dependence on smartphones.
The contract states that students and their parents will not use their phones within an hour of going to sleep and that they will be charged outside the bedroom overnight.
“The contract is purely voluntary but it is something we hope might help families set some ground rules,” Laura Lee, one of its authors, said. “What parents do is really important and has a big impact on children. If checking a phone at the dinner table is their norm, it becomes the norm for the children too.”
Millions of parents admit that they are struggling to cope with screen-obsessed children, as well as managing their own phone addiction. Ms Bingham said she hoped that the contract would help parents to take a stand against what often felt like an “unstoppable tide” of social media and phone use.
She will also write to parents before they send their children into the first year of senior school, urging them not to give them smartphones.
She said: “When pupils start senior school they are coping with new teachers, a new building, new subjects and making new friends. Why would we throw another complex new factor into the mix in the form of a smart phone?”
A year ago Laura Lee, 17, could easily spend six hours a day on her phone, scrolling through Instagram and watching YouTube videos. She was sleeping poorly and spent the journey to and from school messaging the friends she had just seen.
Now she comes off her phone an hour before bed, reads her A level books on the bus and has signed up to a phone-free weekend over Christmas.
She and her parents, along with a reluctant sister, have signed up to the “Family Phone Pledge” that Laura drew up with fellow sixth-formers at South Hampstead High School.
She said: “One of the triggers was a study that a friend and I conducted in psychology. We measured the connection between self-esteem and time spent on Instagram. The negative correlation was really significant. I spent quite a long time on there myself and knew how reliant upon it I was, especially when I got in from school in the afternoons.”
She originally proposed a letter to parents setting out her findings, but decided to draw up the contract after a meeting with the head.
Laura said: “The role of parents is really important, their behaviour impacts on children. Mine have signed up. I’m not sure they have stuck to it entirely. My dad is quite bad. He checks a lot of work emails at home, though we are all very good about not having them at the dinner table.
“I really hope other schools adopt this. Social communication is being lost and it’s so rare for families to sit down together and watch something, and not all be on their different screens.”
Article first appeared in The Times, 30th November 2018