Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, has reignited a debate that continues to rumble on and on: the issue of whether mobile phones should be banned from schools.
Gibb, whilst recognising that schools should be free to set their own behaviour policies, has made it clear that his personal view is that mobile phones should be banned from schools, and particularly from classrooms.
His call comes not from the argument and angle you would expect the Schools Minister to take – from the standpoint of the disruption caused to lessons or the detriment to learning. Rather, his case comes out of a concern over the amount of time young people are spending on digital devices. He argues that every hour that is spent online on a smartphone is one hour less of exercise, family time, or sleep. Gibb believes that pupils need be educated about the dangers of device dependency.
Impact of device use on mental health is a real concern
Concern about the impact of digital devices on the mental health of young people is growing. At the same time, calls for greater regulation of social media platforms are growing too. The recent tragic case of Molly Russell, the teenager who took her own life after viewing suicide-promoting images on Instagram, sparked a public outcry.
Although the main concerns that this incident raised were to do with the responsibilities of the big tech companies to ensure that graphic content is taken down quickly and efficiently, it has also reopened the discussion about the general safety of young people spending so much time online.
The Chief Medical Office, Dame Sally Davies, has recently published guidance saying that children should avoid going on social media directly before bedtime. Nick Gibb is certainly not alone in having serious concerns about the impact excessive smartphone is having on children.
Research shows conflicting arguments
Many parents and teachers share the concerns of Gibb about the over-use of digital devices, but the research that is out there gives a mixed picture of the potential impact on young people. Studies have shown that lack of sleep can have a damaging effect on mental health, but a study conducted by Oxford University found that using digital devices was no more harmful to young people than eating potatoes!
In contrast, studies in the US have concluded that students who are allowed to use their phones (for non-academic reasons) in classrooms achieve half a grade less on average in end of term tests.
In France, President Macron has brought in legislation banning mobile phone in French schools. From problems with texting, sexting and even upskirting, many people are of the view that phones are simply more trouble than they are worth. Banning smartphones just seems to be the simplest solution.
However, others – parents included – believe that Gibb is living in a different century. Some school homework systems are wholly online. It is set and shared online, completed online and marked online. Kids use their phones to do their homework. Some (like many adults) might struggle to function without them – but if a school hasn’t got enough computers – or those it has got are clapped out and slow (as many are), is it really so bad for pupils to be using smartphones?