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Being smart

We recently sent all our parents this letter from one of our Deputy Head Girls along with a Family Phone Pledge. Their laudable initiative, developed by some of our Sixth Form Psychology students, followed a powerful assembly they delivered earlier this month to help pupils and their families to be more mindful of their digital habits.  Their proposed pledge is of course purely voluntary, but certainly something that I, as a school leader, was hugely impressed by – and, as a parent, very grateful for. And it’s from both these perspectives that I want to share with you some of my own thoughts about how schools and families can help young people find a sensible balance in the digital age.

Mobile devices have changed our lives for the better in many ways. We can communicate more easily with each other. We can find out about the world around us and what other people think. We can become knowledgeable in matters we may have known little about earlier that day. After a long day at work a quick game of Candy Crush for ten minutes may not be so dreadful. I have never experienced the joys of the aforesaid, but confess I am a follower of @CuteEmergency on Twitter which features fluffy animals rolling around in snow and suchlike.

But it is the extent to which devices have taken over our lives which is a concern. Passengers not noticing a pregnant woman needs a seat because they are too engrossed in Netflix on their phone. Entire families glued to their screens in restaurants. Young children handed devices to keep them ‘entertained’ (read: passive). Entire trains where you can count the number of people reading an actual book on one hand. Young people obsessively checking messages in the middle of the night. I have to confess that my reaction to the latter in particular is bewilderment. Why is the phone even allowed into their bedroom?

My guess is that resistance from teenagers and the parental need to check work email at night may be two contributory factors. It is hard to lay down the law with our own children when work expects us to send replies late into the evening. I have to say that since becoming a Head I have started to ask some hard questions about the culture of 21st century work. The need for us to address this issue before our children go into the workplace warrants an entirely separate article… The steady march of email, messaging, social media – so easy to use, so quick to send – has created stronger networks but also a lot of unthinking, less reflective (perhaps unnecessary) communication. Now is the time we should start considering – and calling out – the working practices we do not want our children to inherit.

Parents sometimes tell me that they feel powerless in the face of the relentless encroachment of smartphones in our lives. Following a Sixth Form-led student survey at South Hampstead, we know that many of our pupils would welcome some support in looking afresh at some of their own and indeed their family’s screen time. I hope the Family Phone Pledge that our Sixth Formers have devised serves to open those conversations. I’d love to hear about ideas that work for you and your family too.

I also hope that parents of younger smartphone owners can feel empowered to set down ground rules – including informed, proactive decisions about the thorny issue of what age their daughter should be given a smartphone. The default age seems to be 11, when she starts Senior School. The reasons are understandable: all her friends’ parents are following suit… you need peace of mind for her independent journey to and from school… However, it is one thing to get a phone and quite another to get a smartphone. When our daughters start Senior School they are coping with lots of new teachers, new friends, a new building, new subjects, new co-curricular clubs. Why would we throw another complex new factor into the mix? In an article published in The Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago, we learned that the tech scions in Silicon Valley do not tend to give their children smartphones until at least 13 or 14 years old. In the interests of a suitably alliterative phrase, perhaps we should start a movement to ‘Bring Back the Brick’ for use in the early years of Senior School, rather than giving our children our cast-off iPhone?

This is something we shall be writing about to the parents of our 2019 Year 7 intake before they join us in September. I would also reiterate that phones are not allowed out during the school day at South Hampstead either in the Junior or Senior School. If phones are seen, they are confiscated until the end of the day. Sixth Form are the exception and they are expected to set a good example by not being glued to their phones around school. Some schools are even tougher: President Macron has imposed a total ban on phones from French primary and secondary schools. Some secondary schools in the UK collect in phones as pupils arrive in school. We are certainly keeping everything under review.

You may wonder how our 1:1 iPad policy (for pupils in Year 4 to the Sixth Form) fits in with this. Our school iPads are tightly controlled by the school network. Pupils cannot download social media apps or gaming apps, either at home or at school. iPads are used to great effect in many lessons but please rest assured that they remain complementary to traditional teaching techniques. They may be used for 5 to 10 minutes in a lesson and then pupils put them away again.

Our Sixth Formers, parents, teachers all need to be positive role models in their own use of screens. Sixth Formers have organically pioneered the use of the Forest app at South Hampstead, an app which allows the user to monitor their own screen time. Given that the average person reportedly checks their smartphone every 12 minutes of the waking day, the data from this app can be very revealing. Certainly the Sixth Form students who spoke to the school in a recent assembly suggested that the Forest app had made them think twice about their phone use.

Ultimately, life is a rich tapestry and we want our children to enjoy as much of it as possible. I have shared this excellent video with parents before, but do so here in the hope others find it useful too. It was created by Digital Awareness UK, also known as the Digital Sisters. Founders Charlotte and Emma Robertson, who produced it, do much to raise awareness of how smartphones can impact young people’s lives. They are champions of achieving a healthy balance when it comes to digital devices, something we passionately believe in too. They will be coming to speak at South Hampstead again on Thursday 17th January as part of a discussion about screen time (more details to follow) – just one of the many ways we aim to inform and empower our pupils to navigate an increasingly complex and ever-evolving future with confidence, consideration and courage.

Blog post by Vicky Bingham, Headmistress from 2017 to 2023.  

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