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Smartphones & Teens

It will come as no surprise that, at a recent parents’ forum evening, the topic of smartphones was never far from the discussion. Parents everywhere are struggling with the perennial challenge of reining in their child’s phone use and are turning to the school to help.

At South Hampstead, during the school day, phones are not allowed to be used by the girls in Years 7 to 11 and we regularly police the corridors and classrooms, confiscating any that are seen. Phones are meant to be kept in locked lockers. However, we are not able to police the toilet cubicles or other similarly out-of-the-way places that girls may sneak off to in order to send a message or check their Instagram. We have turned off access to the school WiFi network so that girls are not able to use that network with their phones; however there are lots of girls with very big data packages so their use of 4G data (if they can get a signal in the building) is not something we can block.

To many, it would sound like a brilliant development in technology if we could block all mobile phone signals within the school walls, thus completely eradicating clandestine use of phones during the school day. However, if we think of the possibilities of this technology more broadly, I don’t think any of us would like to live in a world where one or another authority could just block our phones from working. That sounds like a very scary prospect from freedom and autonomy so, whilst I would dearly love not to have any girl even consider casting her eyes over her phone at school, I am prepared to accept that infrequent occurrence when contrasted with the alternative.

Schools up and down the country have a range of rules. There are some fairly liberal regimes where pupils are allowed to use their phones as and when they like outside of lessons and, indeed, get them out during lessons to use them as a research or collaboration tool. The thinking here is that phones are here to stay. They are a tool, used by adults all day long, so young people need to learn to use them responsibly whilst they are in school. Other schools take a very strict line, not allowing pupils to be in possession of anything other than a ‘dumb phone’ – a 10 button handset with basic text messaging and phone calls only. At these schools, if a smart phone is seen, it is confiscated until the end of that term!

I would put our regime toward the latter but not as extreme. Most parents in our community have happily bought their children a smart phone and would not thank us for insisting they buy another, less functional, phone. We do take seriously the policing of phone use in school, confiscating any that may appear during the day, but we recognise the importance to families of pupils having their phone outside of school, so would not hang on to a pupil’s phone overnight.

Parents rightly feel that the school has a role to play in addressing phone use outside of school. We absolutely embrace our role in this: educating girls repeatedly and in different ways about responsible behaviour on social media, the ways to avoid the risk of online grooming, the importance of face-to-face social interactions and the value of non-screen time for mental health, sleep and overall wellbeing. However, we are doing all of this in the face of software developers who are actively seeking to make their platforms addictive and to keep the use attached for longer and longer periods.

We can’t, of course, police the girls’ use of their phones outside of school; this must fall to their parents. I do sympathise with this challenge but there are some things that parents can do to make things a little easier:

  • Recruit the parents of your daughter’s friends – it is always easier if everyone has similar rules, so you might try using your networks to get other parents to enforce no-phone-in-the-bedroom rules or similar…
  • Set an example – parents need to be seen to be doing exactly what they expect of their child so, if you don’t want phones in the bedroom, this includes yours. If you don’t want phones to be used whilst watching TV, this includes you. This can be facilitated by using our ‘Family Phone Pledge’ to agree how everyone in the family is going to behave around phone use.
  • Buy a small data package. It is totally unnecessary for young people to have huge data packages. There is WiFi nearly everywhere and apps can be set not to download photos, etc, unless on WiFi, so there is no need for girls to have any more than 1G of data. This should hopefully reduce the time spent glued to their screens when they are out and about with friends.
  • Consider a ‘dumb’ phone for younger pupils, without any apps or data at all – younger pupils often struggle with group chats and apps that they are not mature enough to handle. Younger pupils can communicate successfully with a basic phone that can only make phone calls and send text messages.
  • Be firm with whatever rules you put in place. Your daughter may bristle at first, but she’ll get used to it and she, as well as you, is likely to notice the benefits before long.
  • Let your daughter know that, at any time, you can ask her to log in and show you everything. I wouldn’t recommend doing this behind her back because she does need to feel she has some autonomy and a certain amount of privacy, but she also needs to know that, like her bedroom, you mostly will let her have her own space – but you may want to know more about what she is doing if you have cause for concern.
  • Talk to your daughter about the pros and cons of social media use. If you only bang on about the cons, she will switch off. She needs to know that you respect that being on social media is virtually a given for her generation. Once she trusts that you understand that, she is more likely to engage with you about the benefits of having some limits on its use.
  • Don’t reply to your daughter if she sends you a message from school. Girls who really need to contact parents can do so using the phone at reception, and girls who are unwell should be visiting the nurse. If you reply to your daughter when she sneaks into the loo to WhatsApp you, you are reinforcing exactly the behaviour we are trying to restrict.

Teenagers are hard-wired to engage with things that their parents don’t approve of, as they develop their independence and ready themselves for the autonomy of adulthood. Teenagers are also pre-programmed to place far more importance on their relationships with their friends during this phase of life and social media allows them to permanently engage in that pursuit, helpfully or harmfully. It is totally understandable that young people want to be connected with their friends at all times. The same held true for those of my generation who, after a full day of school, couldn’t wait to pick up the phone to their friends as soon as they got home!

So, just like parents in generations before, our role is to educate, guide, role-model and constrain where necessary, to keep the girls safe and to prepare them for a time when they will make all their own decisions. At school, we will continue to do our part in setting up all the right knowledge and understanding so that those decisions are fully informed and as beneficial as possible. And we will continue to take away any phones that we see in use during the school day!

Blog post written by Ms Brass, Senior Deputy Head, who heads up the pastoral programme at South Hampstead.  Head Mrs Bingham has spoken out before about the encroachment of smartphones on our lives and the potential benefits of ‘bringing back the brick’.

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