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The classroom mobile phone ban doesn’t go far enough

Smartphones need to be cracked down on outside the classroom as well as inside. Credit: Getty

October 4, 2023 - 7:00am

It is good to see that the Government has this week proposed banning mobile phones from classrooms — guidance that, if implemented, will rightly earn Education Secretary Gillian Keegan more respect.

To me, though, it’s a bit like applauding a ban on loudspeakers in libraries: it’s so darn obvious that it’s bizarre it’s taken this long.

In the wake of good news like this it’s tempting to relax and feel that things are moving in the right direction. Yet now is the time to push harder. Smartphones need to be cracked down on outside the classroom as well as inside.

It is no good ensuring that school is a phone-free haven if the children then grab their mobiles the minute they leave the building at 4pm, spending the next eight hours frantically scrolling and Snapchatting. Any gain made during the school day will instantly dissolve at its close. 

What’s more, the addictive nature of smartphones means that many children will spend the school day anxiously fretting about when they can have their phones back — pity the teacher trying to discuss redemption and damnation in Doctor Faustus when all his pupils are twitching for TikTok like a den of crack addicts.

In my work as patron of a charity which helps to keep children from tough homes in school and in learning, I’ve spoken to countless teenagers all over the country. When I get the chance, I always ask them how they’d cope without social media, were it made illegal. Not one has said that they would miss it. In fact, they all express some form of humorous, “if only” wistfulness about the idea. 

But as things stand they can’t give it up —  it’s how they communicate with their peers and they are endearingly candid about their addiction. There’s a similar whiff to the opioid crisis in America: social media was presented to us all as a positive connecting force when it’s actually divisive, isolating and deeply damaging. 

Nearly £100 million has been forked out by the Government in the last two years on soaring mental health needs for school pupils. Over a million British children per year are referred to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, many of whom present with severe depression, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders and suicidal behaviour. Half a million of those are still on waiting lists.

If teenagers used brick phones only capable of calling and texting — instead of portals to time-wasting, cyber-bullying, self-harm chatrooms, pro-anorexia forums and terrifyingly violent porn — the Government could no doubt save itself many more imminent millions. Without a smartphone I do not think it far-fetched to bet that the vast majority of children would be calmer, happier, healthier, better-rested and more able to focus at school.

The neurological dangers of smart devices are less talked about than the emotional and mental risks. In a nutshell, the rapid-fire stimulation of digital life wrecks a child’s ability to concentrate for a sustained period of time — probably the key factor leading to academic success.

So Gillian, if we’re serious about improving a child’s educational potential we need more, please. An overhaul of digital learning in which devices are programmed solely for educational use and their classroom usage vastly decreased — book, paper and pen have now been found to be far more effective learning tools than digital learning platforms (just have a look at the kind of schools to which Big Tech workers send their kids). And a general ban of smartphones and social media for those under the age of 16. Only if we take these braver steps will we watch those young birds soar.


Sophie Winkleman is an actress and patron of School-Home Support, the Big Issue, AgeUK, the Children’s Surgery Foundation and CURE.org

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Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
9 months ago

It’s great that the UK government is finally trying this, but it is surely obvious that this a new battle in a war that is already lost. The question no one wants to ask, is *why* this stuff is so addictive, pretty much regardless of the age of participants, although I accept the effects are particularly deleterious for children. To me, the answer is that it plugs directly into the sockets created by our evolutionary biology, and delivers a continuous high voltage feed of what our organisms blindly think we need to improve our survival and propagation at both an individual and group-cultural level. The fact that in reality it does neither, likely does the opposite, is moot.

Fighting biology is like fighting flowing water – the water simply finds a way around most barriers you care to put up, but different types of traversals result in creating different types of human cultures – probably ones you didn’t intend. It can likely be done, but not without first understanding the nature of the issue, and then working out if the results are what you want, and you accept the inherent trade-offs in any such actions. Without that intentionality, you will lose.

Last edited 9 months ago by Prashant Kotak
Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
9 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

You might (or might not) be correct about the ‘survival’ thing but you are missing something.
If you speak to someone who is flicking through pictures on a phone, it is clear that the person can only absorb part of what you are saying – the mind is divided between the two feeds. So, one reason for looking at a phone is to avoid concentrating on something – it is the mind being lazy. This is a survival instinct in one sense, that the mind doesn’t get too tired and can continue to deal efficiently with life-threatening things. But being lazy is also something that you choose to be, not just a survival instinct.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
9 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I’m intrigued to know how they plan to enforce it?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
9 months ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

I imagine the schools will insist on mobiles being surrendered in the morning and picked up at the end of the day. I guess they could say if anything happens the phones, the school has no responsibility because they are not asking for phones to be brought in into school.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Surely school children should be rushing to bin their mobile phones in order to combat global warming

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
5 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Mike Benz calls it “digital MKUltra”. Perfect – and terrifying – description.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
9 months ago

I came back from the gym yesterday at 3.30pm near a school and every child was walking alone, head down, staring at one of these screens.

They don’t need the Metaverse; it’s already arrived.

Glyn R
Glyn R
9 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

It’s tragic.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
9 months ago

My school doesn’t allow smartphones in the classroom (most of the times at least), but a lot of homework is still online, not to mention the still ubiquitous Teams.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
9 months ago

I have seen friends grant expensive iPhones as gifts to their young, pre teen daughters. It truly is a rather sad situation, at that age we would be playing sports, enjoying our lives, studying…

Ultimately, it has to be a combination of both parents and school regulations. Parents have to be more strict, and schools need to enforce stricter rules (and not just on phones).

Barry Dank
Barry Dank
9 months ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

But so many parents do not have the time to be strict since they need to continue bingeing their favorite streaming TV programs.

ralph bell
ralph bell
9 months ago

The PM today is looking to restrict smoking, a minority habit in young people anyway and there is lots of distraction about vapes (the safest addition yet), whilst the elephant in the room is smartphone apps. Just today nearly every school pupil was walking alone to school staring at their mobile phone screen, how sad and damaging to their development. Action is definitely needed.

Adam Bacon
Adam Bacon
9 months ago

Matthew Crawford wrote an article for Unherd a couple of years ago , ‘Distraction is the Obesity of the Mind’ – a catchy way of thinking about this eternal problem, I thought. It was also a frequent theme for Aldous Huxley in Brave New World and elsewhere, and, of course, central in the teachings of the Buddha.

We now live in a world where we have a portal for infinite distraction in our pocket or bag, all of the time. The loss of focus, and of concentration span have become a problem even for those of us accustomed to living without them, never mind for the younger generation that hadn’t. My intelligent, articulate and thoughtful offspring all seem incapable of actually reading a book.

Last edited 9 months ago by Adam Bacon
laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
9 months ago

Two thoughts:
While a more serious attempt to control teenage digital obsession is a great idea, the more modest proposal of a class room ban has some real benefits. Going cold turkey is not always a good idea. (I quit smoking a bit at a time. While this did not satisfy the most vocal advocates, it protected me, over the course of a few years, from thousands of unsmoked cigarettes. And I quit without yo-yoing back and forth.) And, of course, the issue at hand is classroom behavior, not anxiety.
The second is the real problem. Parents want their kids to be immediately reach-able in the event of an “emergency”. While not completely sensible (emergency is a relative concept), this motivation is very strong among the parents I know.
But I hope Ms. Winkleman continues her advocacy on the subject. A world without cellphone obsession would be a much better place.

David Billingham
David Billingham
9 months ago

Rather than banning them couldn’t we be teaching children about the benefits and harms of smartphones, getting them to think for themselves a bit about how best to use them. After all smartphones are a part of life now and they’re not going away any time soon, until a new technology is invented that makes them obsolete

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
9 months ago

Do both

Richard M
Richard M
9 months ago

I know these are serious issues, but all I can think about is “That’s Big Suze from Peep Show!”

Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
9 months ago

I’m ambivalent. On one hand it seems common sense to not allow mobiles in class. On the other hand, a lot of the crazy woke nonsense in schools has often been exposed because a kid or two in class are filming in the classroom.

Lukasz Gregorczyk
Lukasz Gregorczyk
9 months ago

Yes only if! Given the obvious harms it should really be on par with tobacco and alcohol! In this we could learn a lot from the Chinese!

Kieran P
Kieran P
9 months ago

redemption and damnation in Doctor Faustus.
Seriously??

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
9 months ago

I use this lot – v good: https://parentshield.co.uk/

Last edited 9 months ago by Frank McCusker
Arkadian X
Arkadian X
9 months ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

Gosh, NOT cheap!

Saul D
Saul D
5 months ago

It wouldn’t be too hard for Google or someone to produce a school compliance app that records screen activity, locations, sets homework, monitors for bad language and reports it back to the school/parents with punishment recommendations. AI should be able to do it easily, at scale, so every child is monitore – “The snitch in your pocket”. Something like that would mean students would abandon phones forever.

Kasandra H
Kasandra H
5 months ago

As the author pointed out, more is needed. As the article suggests, a general ban on smart phones and social media for those under 16. Parents may protest though as the smartphone is their co-parenting device and a way to contact their children when they are always busy. The more the parents are absent, the greater the social media addiction. This proposed law is great though. Although some parents may fight for their children to use phones in school, most kids will learn to do without it perhaps. X

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 months ago

Why on earth is Lady Frederick Windsor writing for Unherd. Who does she know?