Walk past any school gate as the pupils are streaming out at the end of the day and where you once saw children laughing and chatting, you now see heads down, eyes fixed on phones, their minds already disengaged from the human hubbub around them.
All the research suggests that this should ring alarm bells in every school in the land. Academics are telling us that excessive mobile phone usage is a significant factor in potential mental health issues, is repeatedly associated with insomnia and general psychological distress, and contributes directly to academic underperformance.
A BBC poll showed teens spent an average of three to four hours every night on social networks and were losing sleep checking their notifications, often in the middle of the night. Research in the journal Current Problems of Psychiatry notes that individuals who engage in high levels of mobile phone use often experience stress, anger and anxiety when they can’t get to their phone.
When you look at mobiles in educational settings specifically, the picture does not improve. A large-scale study of 91 UK schools showed that schools that banned phones benefited from an increase in results, with gains being driven primarily by children in the bottom 60 per cent of the cohort. This 60 per cent are those youngsters who are being left behind in too many schools, with devastating consequences for their future prospects. The authors of the study concluded that the distraction and low-level disruption caused by mobile phones were behind the results.
There’s a vicious circle at play here. A three-year study of 1,877 Korean adolescents found depressive symptoms in children may contribute to an increase in mobile phone use and, conversely, mobile phone use may contribute to an increase in depressive symptoms.
One final unnerving piece of research: the authors of a 2017 study on school performance, cyber bullying and mobile phone use, which appeared in the International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, concluded that time spent on a mobile phone surfing the internet is associated with increased probability of getting involved in cyberbullying, both as a victim and as a perpetrator.
And those youngsters who are most at risk are those who were given a mobile phone at a young age. So, there can be no doubt that children need guidance about mobile phone use.
Here, at Brighton College, we decided to introduce a ban on mobiles for Years 7, 8 and 9 with limited access for older pupils which we have termed ‘digital detox days’. In conjunction with this, we bought dozens of good old-fashioned board games, which we put in every house common room, in the hope that pupils, minus their phones, might take it upon themselves to indulge in a game of Monopoly, Cluedo or Trivial Pursuit. In addition, we set down minimum expectations on pupils to attend at least four games or activities, clubs and societies each week.
I simply want to provide time and space for youngsters to rediscover the art of conversation, to look up and notice the wonderful (and sometimes not so wonderful) world around them and to discover the pleasures of board games and physical activity.
Talking to the children since the ban has been fascinating. One girl, a boarder, told me that during break time she has been going outside a lot more and chatting with friends instead of checking her social media. She added that she was sleeping longer at night, as boarders are not allowed their phones after 10pm, so she was not feeling obliged to check every notification that pinged through on her phone.
Another told me he had been reading a lot more in bed and had been quietly discovering new authors he enjoyed.
There is still much to be done. Smart phones and tablets connect us with the world and offer up incredible learning opportunities. However, there seems to be a heavy price to be paid for being accessible 24/7, coming under constant digital scrutiny by peers and feeling pressure to maintain online popularity and no one, surely, would want this for our young people.
This article was originally published in the SS18 issue of School House.