Learn about how to combat the risks of child mobile phone use, from Andrew Cowley.

The recent proposed guidance on mobile phone usage by children in England’s schools has been widely interpreted in parts of the mainstream and social media as a ‘ban’. This may have been read by some schools who haven’t actioned this already with a sense of relief, but probably by those who decided a strategy a number of years previously would have been read with a raised eyebrow or two for what may have been a belated response.

Arguments about barring phones in school tend to lack nuance, focussing on the link with behaviour, disruption of lessons and their use as a form of bullying.

It is estimated that:

  • 97% of children own a mobile phone by the age of 12
  • 63% of 8-11 year olds and 93% of 12-15 year olds use social media and messaging apps. 1
However, whatever restrictions and rules there may be in schools, there needs to be a wider discussion of the role of the smartphone in the lives of our young people, of the impact phones have on our culture and society, of their benefits and of the potential risks and dangers associated with mobile phone usage.​

Benefits

  • Communication: The link to other humans is good for our wellbeing. We are, to a greater or lesser extent, social beings, and phones have the capability to link us instantly with our social circle for companionship and support. It is also a means of reaching out in times of need.
  • Knowledge: A smartphone is a small computer with an instant connection to news, information and essential services such as transport delays.
  • Skills: The smartphone provides a boost in communication, literacy and social skills. It can encourage children in coding, digital photography and in sophisticated image manipulation for artistic purposes.

Risks and dangers

One of the risks can of course be that the benefits of communication, knowledge and skills are turned on their heads. Communication becomes cyberbullying; knowledge mutates into stalking; skills in image manipulation are used to humiliate and intimidate.

However this is not the exclusive realm of youth, adults do this too, some of whom are in occupations where they ought to know better. There is a place here for education around the correct use of phones in this regard, but there are specific risks for children.

Time online

Many of us worked hard in schools before Covid to reduce the time spent online. The sessions with parents, lessons in class, encouraging children to take up other activities. All this counted for little from March 2020 and for at least two years afterwards as children spent lessons online but were also tempted into other aspects of the use of apps and of the internet. Too much time online impacts sleep, but can also add to stress, especially if the interactions and content encountered are disturbing.

Risky content

It is suggested that there are children as young as 8 who have accessed pornography through a smartphone. 2 The unproven but suggested impact of almost ‘normalising’ this imagery in the minds of young people could be seen in sexist and predatory behaviours and peer-on-peer abuse. There is also concern about children accessing material relating to suicide and to self-harm. Schools are recording more safeguarding notifications on these themes. There is also a fear from some parents that content like this is being shared with their children by others.

Age restrictions and apps

Many smartphones have applications such as WhatsApp installed as default, and even though there is a supposed age limit of 16 on it, children won’t see the point. As a Deputy Head, I was frequently called upon to speak to parents and children about WhatsApp, from screenshots of unsuitable language, to bullying and social exclusion, but also of sharing numbers with unknown people. Groups would often include another person outside the school. That person could have been a fellow pupil but they could have been a predatory adult who has now gained access to the phone numbers of a group of young people. WhatsApp and other apps have also enabled ‘sexting’, a concern within the Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance. For schools who have had to deal with the aftermath of the sharing of images and of language that children should not be exposed to, there is an impact for the adults too.

Fear Of Missing Out

Device envy and peer pressure, as well as keeping up to date with what is happening, also impacts our children, to the extent that they know more about the phone and its features than the risks that owning one can have. A phone isn’t a status symbol, but alas can be seen as one, sometimes at the cost of basic security. Another issue schools face from parents is complaints about hacked accounts, stolen passwords and virus infections, which occur despite this featuring prominently in the curriculum.

Safety and security

Phones are some of our most stolen items, snatched from hands outside railway stations, at bus stops and even when walking along the road. Adults are prone to this too, but we have all seen young people on their way home, phones out either for calls or for filming. The plaintive cry of , “They need a phone to be safe”, matters little when it has been stolen and sold on.

Prevention

Schools do what they can within the curriculum about safe use of devices, both within computing and PSHE lessons, but in truth the issue of phones in school is dealt with by either by a blanket ban, a ‘not seen’ rule or a policy of responsible use, which many students are capable of doing.

The real education needs to come with parents.

Shifting attitudes takes time, but there are a few simple tips parents can employ to support their children (and themselves):

  • Turn off the WiFi at a set hour, or isolate specific devices from access.
  • Agree a ‘contract’ of independent time on phones at home.
  • Have a space (for adults too) where phones can be used. This should exclude the dining table!
  • Take on contracts with no additional mobile data.
  • Use a phone tracker app and also monitor your child’s phone usage. 
  • Keep the phone in a safe place at night, one the adults can agree to too.

Learn to love technology, embrace it, but don’t waste it.

References

  1. Ofcom(2023) ‘Children and parents: media use and attitudes report’. Available at: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/research-and-data/media-literacy-research/childrens/children-and-parents-media-use-and-attitudes-report-2023 (Accessed:31 May 2024)
  2. BBC News (2023) ‘Children’s commissioner: Pornography affecting 8-year-olds’ behaviour’. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-65534354 (Accessed: 31 May 2024)

Author

  • Andrew Cowley

    Andrew Cowley is an experienced former primary school teacher and DHT. He now coaches mental health leaders for Carnegie Centre of Excellence at Leeds Beckett University and is the author of The Wellbeing Toolkit, The Wellbeing Curriculum and the forthcoming The School Mental Health Toolkit.
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