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Rethinking Smartphones

Smartphones are very much on our minds. Whilst it’s not possible or desirable to return to the landline attached to the kitchen wall by a long, springy cord, there is no doubt that there are profound and lasting downsides to the ubiquitous smartphone, particularly for children and adolescents.

In his book ‘The Anxious Generation’, Jonathan Haidt walks readers through the raft of research supporting the clear link between the introduction of smartphones and social media and the marked deterioration in children’s and adolescents’ mental health since 2010. Haidt has gathered information from a huge range of studies from around the world which show both correlational links and causal links; these studies also include those which debunk other explanations put forward by those who reject the idea that the smartphone is at the heart of the problem. His compilation makes for worrying reading but it also encourages hope as more adults, including those in national policy-making roles, are taking notice. Things can get better for children.

Haidt summarises the great change as moving from a ‘play-based childhood to a phone-based childhood.’ This encompasses so many important aspects of child development – from the amount of time that adults, mostly parents, are spending in face-to-face contact with their young children, to the amount of time that adolescents are in face-to-face contact with each other and with the wider society around them. Vitally important life skills are not being learned by our young people because so much of their attention is focused on screens instead of observing and interacting with real, live people in real time, with all the imperfectness that goes along with that.

Like the building of our immune systems, humans need a whole range of age-specific, person-to-person experiences to build the skills and instincts we need for adult life. We need to learn how to relate to one another and we need to learn to assess risks. This requires children to have a steady stream of tumbles, mishaps, and relational difficulties, to help amass the experience needed to cope with the bigger things to come in later life. One of the reasons young people love turning to screens is to avoid the sometimes awkward and always imperfect business of face-to-face interactions, but it is precisely this experience that is vitally needed, during childhood and adolescence.

Although social media can be fun and uplifting, it can also negatively impact our mental health, as algorithms serve up a steady diet of suggestions on how to perfect our lives. Young people have no point of reference to challenge what they see; the huge number of ‘likes’ tell them that this is content to be noticed, absorbed and emulated, whether it’s helpful or harmful. Children can also be exhausted as they try to assimilate all the information they receive at lightening speed. This is to say nothing of the countless chat groups they are trying to keep up with. The demands on their attention are relentless and leave no room for young brains to rest or wander.

Parents are understandably worried, but may not fully understand the intensity of young people’s experience. We did not have this type of childhood. We had daily risks and mishaps, whether physical or social, without a device to turn to for every wobble or moment of boredom. We coped and we developed skills. We also had downtime when nothing much happened. We had breaks from our friendship groups, and we didn’t have a steady stream of ‘this is what your life should be like’ being thrown in our faces every waking hour. We were sometimes even bored! This was so valuable.

Although momentum is gathering in the media, with movements such as Smartphone Free Childhood, schools have been concerned about the impact of smartphones for many years. This is why policies already exist to keep phones out of the school day and why so much time is devoted in Personal, Social, Health & Economic Education (PSHEE) lessons to online safety, healthy phone use and critical challenge of information accessed online. Indeed, at South Hampstead, our Head Girl Team led the development of a Family Phone Pledge back in 2018.

Our Senior School parent survey revealed that 83% of parents have concerns about their daughter’s phone use. 75% of parents wish other parents had more limits on their child’s phone use, suggesting a desire for a reduction of what is ‘normal’ phone use amongst adolescents. Phones are causing conflict in most households and more than half of respondent parents would support a national ban on children under the age of 13 having smartphones

If we are going to protect our children, this generation and the next, we need sweeping societal changes. We need changes in legislation around social media and phone use. Given that it has now been shown that smartphones pose a range of very concerning risks in a number of ways, we also need changes in the prevailing approach.  It is, of course, incredibly difficult to be the stand-out parent – the parent who has far stricter phone rules than the majority, or the parent who allows their child to walk home alone without a phone, when others wouldn’t consider it. It can be done, and some parents manage it, but it’s a tough road and I would never presume to criticise a parent who felt the need to support their child to fit in with social norms. We want to work with parents to change those social norms so that our students can return to going through the various milestones along the journey to adulthood in the right order and at the right time.

As a school, we are in the process of refining a new approach to mobile phones from September 2024. We are keen to be making and supporting the change that is needed. At present, pupils in Year 7 to 11 must not use their phone during the school day, and devices are confiscated for the remainder of the day if they are seen. But from September, we will have an even tighter control on phone use within the school setting and we aim to support parents in establishing supportive agreements with each other that will make it easier to have a firmer line on when and where phones are used outside of school. We will be in touch with parents with more details about this approach after half-term.

We will also be combining this increased focus on phone use at school with more education for the girls about why the School needs to take an even firmer approach. It is very important that the approach of parents and the School does not feel punitive. Instead, we need to explain to our students and our children that the adults around them need to help them manage their approaches to this technology, in the same way that they would expect the adults around them to restrict their access to other unhealthy ways of living.

Together, we can embody the change that is needed.

Together, we can embody the change that is needed; we can bring things back to a healthier place and our children deserve our efforts to make it happen. Thank you in advance for all your support and we look forward to further dialogue with you about this important issue for us all.

Suggested reading:

Blog post written by Ms Brass, Senior Deputy Head, who heads up the pastoral programme at South Hampstead. 

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