Some time ago I was speaking to a grandmother about secondary schools. As someone who had already put children through secondary school, I was keen to hear her opinions, all the more so as we were trying to decide which school would be the best fit for our eldest daughter, Helen.
Granny, as I’ll call her, explained that a school further away from home was best. She said that whatever troubles children had during the school day could then be left at the school gate. If a child attends a school on their doorstep, they might see the same kids after school and any issues would rumble on.
It was well-meant advice and I saw the logic. Unfortunately, it completely overlooked the influence of mobile phones, something that would have been less of an issue when her offspring were younger.
Alas, as a family we have discovered this the hard way. It’s why I find myself questioning Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, when he announced he’d like schools in England to ban mobile phones altogether.
It’s a vacuous statement that probably sounds good to your average, ageing, “Country’s going to the dogs” Telegraph reader. Anyone involved in raising the current generation of children, the first generation of children to walk around with a super-computer in their school bag, will know it’s a daft thing to say (Fact: There’s more processing power in your mobile phone than there was in the computers used during the Apollo moon landings).
Let’s just pick apart what Williamson has said. Firstly, at secondary school some homework has to be done on apps. Youngsters also have to use apps like Satchel One to keep a record of the homework they have done.
Not, you understand, that this kind of thing has to be done during the school day. Nonetheless, if you ban mobile phones in schools, you would send a strange message to youngsters. It suggests that education and mobile phones do not mix when in the 21st Century, they do.
When well made, educational apps can be superb and add real value to a youngster’s learning. When I say superb, I mean they really can be excellent. The challenge is to persuade kids to use the good apps instead of rotting their brains while using the poor quality ones.
Second, and most importantly, in my experience the problem is not mobile phone use in school. It’s mobile phone use on the way to school, on the way home, at the evenings and weekends. Only once has a mobile phone caused a problem during my daughter’s time at secondary school and all that happened was that a phone started ringing during a lesson.
The real problem is easy access to unsuitable apps. Messaging apps in particular are a dreadful influence on youngsters. They allow kids to bully each other or be nasty well after school hours. You could send your kids to school in the middle of the Australian outback and if someone had a grudge against them, the bullying would continue. It’d simply take place on a group chat instead of to their face. This explains why Granny was mistaken.
The paradox is that some of what Williamson was very valid. He said mobile phones are “damaging.” The latest research from Ofsted into sexual harassment in schools shows he’s right. A staggering number of youngsters are using inappropriate language and sending inappropriate pictures using their phones.
Despite what you’ve read in the mainstream media which has focused solely on the impact on girls, vast numbers of girls and boys have been victims of this behaviour. Phones can be damaging, extremely damaging in fact and it’s this behaviour that is ruining the childhood of many youngsters.
How much of this is actually happening in school? The answer, I think, is very little. Most schools have a defacto ban on mobile phone use in place already.
Most of this poor behaviour is happening beyond the school gates and parents need to take a long, hard look at their behaviour as many don’t take this responsibility seriously. I am sick and tired of families who have a relaxed attitude to their kids’ mobile phone use. Time and time again it’s caused problems for my children and family.
When I became a dad I naively thought the issue of screen time was about stopping your kids from watching too many cartoons. How wrong I was!
Bullying, bad language, sharing of inappropriate videos. I’m afraid we’ve had to deal with all these issues and much more. What really concerns me is that these things often happen with the knowledge or even connivance of parents.
This is why Williamson’s remarks are totally off target. What we need is legislation to force the tech companies to undertake proper age verification checks. We need to make it a criminal offence to supply youngsters with apps when they are under age.
Some will say that’s too difficult or simply not possible. I say that’s rubbish. Cinema managers, publicans and vape store owners can all be prosecuted for selling products to under age users so why not app store operators? Supermarkets sell booze online so if they can be trusted and regulated, the app stores can too.
This would also make parents legally responsible for what their children were doing online. I think that would be a brilliant idea as it would force parents to show a greater interest into what kids were doing.
The forthcoming Online Safety Bill is the one great hope. Alas, I hear different things about the Bill. The Government is promising one thing, but experts are saying it’ll be incredibly weak.
In the meantime, politicians will continue to blame schoolkids for being disruptive in class when they aren’t. More worryingly, online bullying of children will continue and many parents will fail to keep a proper eye on their kids’ digital footprint.
The one good thing to come of this is that Williamson has at least launched a consultation into mobile phone use in schools. This is an opportunity to make clear that he’s mistaken and that it’s mobile phone use more generally that’s the problem.
It’s an issue that desperately needs the Government’s attention as the one thing Williamson is right about is that phone use can be damaging to youngsters. The law has simply not caught up with smart phones. Smart phones and app use are totally unregulated and it is damaging to young people. Banning phones in school, however, will do nothing to solve the issue.