Headmaster's Blog

June 2024

A downside of the digital revolution

In recent months I have become acutely aware that I have made a serious mistake as a parent. I am equally aware that I am not alone in this; indeed, I spend a lot of my time reassuring parents that it is okay to be worried and anxious about how their children are getting on. The range of subjects is vast: friendships, academics, sport, happiness. The common theme is always worry, and always looking to make a child’s world as perfect as it can be which is completely understandable.

My slip into my bad parenting mistake has been a gradual one but it started early. I was keen to share a childhood love of Nintendo with my own children so we bought a Switch. We have spent the last decade travelling between our home in Wales and school so invested in Amazon fire tablets to make the journeys less argumentative for the children and less painful for us parents. Our daughter was given a mobile phone on her 12th birthday; a year earlier than planned but she seemed to be the last in her year group to have one and we broke. I bowed to the pressure of our son to buy a VR headset for a recent birthday; combined with some terrific Amazon bombardment of discount offers. Some parents reading this might nod in recognising this experience; others will be horrified. I can only note that all we can do as parents is make what we think are the best decisions at any given time.

Three years ago, we decided to sell our house on Anglesey and move back to the mainland. We bought a derelict smallholding which has since become a labour of love. On our first visit in the May 2021 sunshine, the children loved the idea of exploring the land with dogs at heel, building dens, and generally soaking in the fresh air. We all agreed that this was going to be an outdoor house. Fast-forward three years and this May half-term our children have barely been outside. It is easier to wake up and turn on the television or continue with Zelda than it is to don wellies and make a real bow and arrow in the woodland. How depressing that this is the default for many of today’s generation. Long gone are the days of football or climbing trees, which is all we ever really wanted to do as children; even after the Nintendo arrived in the late 1980s.

This situation may be familiar. As I write, calls for a government ban on smartphones for under-16s only grows. To my daughter’s disgust and fear, I have to admit that I am sympathetic to this idea, but implementation would be incredibly complicated.

The rise in mental health issues amongst young people is not solely the fault of the smartphone but it certainly has had an impact. I doubt there is a school leader in the country who has not seen an increase in anxiety issues and poor mental health. It would have to be one of the great coincidences of history if there is no correlation.

In February 2024, Ofcom, the online safety regulator, reported to the government that:

  • 99% of children spend time online.
  • nine in 10 children own a mobile phone by the time they reach the age of 11.
  • three-quarters of social media users aged between eight and 17 have their own account or profile on at least one of the large platforms.
  • despite most platforms having a minimum age of 13, six in 10 children aged 8 to 12 who use them are signed up with their own profile.
  • almost three-quarters of teenagers between age 13 and 17 have encountered one or more potential harms online.
  • three in five secondary school-aged children have been contacted online in a way that potentially made them feel uncomfortable.
  • there is a “blurred boundary between the lives children lead online and the ‘real world’”.

In November 2023, NHS England reported that:· 

  • In 2023, 20.3% of 8 to 16 year olds probably had a mental disorder
  • Among 8 to 16 year olds, rates of probable mental disorder were similar for boys and girls
  • Children aged 11 to 16 years with a probable mental disorder were 5 times more than those unlikely to have a mental disorder to have been bullied in person (36.9% compared with 7.6%). They were also more likely to have been bullied online (10.8% compared with 2.6%).
  • 2.6% of 11 to 16 year olds were identified with eating disorders, with rates 4 times higher in girls (4.3%) than boys (1.0%)

Children with smartphones have almost limitless access to pornography, self-harm, phobia promotion, and access to influencers and populists that have great ability to corrupt young minds. It is not within the business model of social media platforms to prevent this and legislation is woefully inadequate.

Children often have these phones with them 24/7. They sleep less well at night as often the phone is next to them, they use them on the way to school, while completing homework and prep, while watching television, often while eating with their family. There is no escape from the barrage of threat, abuse, and disinformation, even with parental attempts at curfew or child control features. Of course, escape is the wrong word as children are magnetised by these devices. They rely on them for social connectivity and there is clear evidence of children feeling left out if friends are constantly communicating on social media applications. Like a fly to a light-bulb, they do not always realise the underlying threat, or abuse they will face. Even when they do understand the threat, they can think they are mature enough to ignore it. Sadly, that is rarely the case.

Schools also have a responsibility for controlling usage. I must confess that 20 years ago as a classroom teacher leading a history trip to the Ypres Salient, I strongly argued against senior management to allow phones on the trip. The GCSE girls that we were taking all had phones and I could only see the safety advantages for their free time in Brugge, should they get lost or need to contact a teacher. Given the pace of change, that was a different largely app-less era with the biggest risk being a game of snake or losing the phone to a parent’s annoyance, but now I would never allow those phones to be taken. In my view, the risks would not outweigh the benefits.

Schools today need to give thought as to whether phones should be allowed in school at all. My eldest daughter catches the bus to school every day and for us as parents it is a great reassurance that she can contact us in the event of a possible breakdown or delay. When she first joined the school, we made sure she knew that the phone had to stay in her bag upon arrival and it was not to be seen during the day. Within a week she told us that although the official school policy was for no mobile phones, every day teachers would ask their students to take them out of pockets or bags to complete some research, work out a calculation, or take a photograph of a whiteboard or passage of text. It is no wonder that there is so much confusion amongst our young people. We talk about the dangers of these things but then give them the devices and expect them to use them sensibly. We, too, model bad behaviour.

More and more schools seem to be moving towards devices for children. I understand that they will use them in their working life and the UK cannot afford to get behind other countries with a digitally illiterate generation. However, I increasingly baulk against the idea of younger children using devices. We are evermore worried about the impact of micro-concussion in sport damaging our children’s brains. In rugby this is gradually leading to contact being introduced at an older age; surely we should be doing the same for devices. We can teach IT and coding in controlled environments but we do not need to teach children to rely on devices. Instead, we should be encouraging social interaction, literacy skills, question formation and research planning, argument structure and delivery, laterally thinking and creativity, exposure to the outdoors and fresh air. Success in life is not identified solely by economic measures, it is more identifiable by happiness, balance of work and leisure, strong relationships, and what we give back rather than what we consume. I am convinced that parents and schools need to focus less on endlessly seeking to fill gaps of time and increase productivity by digital means. We need to focus on quality of experience and generating self-understanding and reliance. Being a largely passive consumer of reels and social media feeds simply does not achieve that.

The great problem here is that over the past 20 years we have become completely reliant on the smartphone for banking, entertainment, news, commerce, and communication. We cannot simply expect children, parents, or schools to unilaterally make moves to roll back from the smartphone until it becomes age appropriate. Like many things in life, we only begin to miss the important elements of childhood when they have gone. If we don’t act now, future generations will not know they have gone.

I’m afraid this article only presents the problems, and not the solutions but there are embryonic ideas in here: parents making conscious decisions about their own children’s exposure rather than following the herd; school leaders being brave enough to stand by their convictions instead of following the latest digital trend; children being given continuing education about the advantages and disadvantages of the smartphone, which to be fair, I think schools already do very well.

However, it does need more, a lot more. It needs a societal shift and it is hard to see that coming without government intervention. A generation ago smoking was completely acceptable in public places and in the same timescale as the rise of the smartphone we now seem to be close to a generation that will be cigarette-free. We can change the direction of travel with the corruption of the young by smartphone usage but as a society we need to look in the mirror and make some hard decisions.