Why all the fuss about mobile phones?

Matt Hancock, the former culture secretary, suggested that schools ban mobile phones. This follows on from President Macron’s banning of mobile phones in French schools.  What has brought about these dramatic interventions? The debate about whether mobile phones and social media are good or bad for children has been going on for some while. The research is far from conclusive but the general drift seems to suggest that they can be detrimental to children’s mental health. 

I personally do not believe that simply banning mobile phones from school is the answer. Surely, it makes greater sense for schools to educate children in the advantages and disadvantages of their phones and enforce rules around the usage of mobiles in school. For me the real issue is the childrens’ use of their mobile phones during all of the time that they are not in school. It is essential that parents have a greater understanding of their children’s usage and the issues that this might cause.

In order to think a bit more clearly about this issue it’s helpful to reclassify what we are talking about. We call them phones, but they are phones in name only, more accurately smartphones are 24/7 entertainment centres. Children hardly ever use the actual telephone function. 

Many parents duck the issue of phone use in the home despite knowing that they are disruptive and sometimes destructive to family life. If you have ever tried to take one off a teenager, you will know first-hand how difficult it is to get between a teenager and his/her phone. It can sometimes, therefore, seem easier not to try.

There are two issues I want to raise, which might get us to start taking this problem more seriously at home.

The first is the issue of addiction. Children’s screen time has been rapidly increasing. Teenagers typically spend in the region of 9 hours a day online. Older teenagers, on average, check their phone 2500 times per day. The top 10% look at their phone 5500 times per day. Every time a child checks his/her phone, their brain releases a chemical called dopamine. This is the chemical which the brain releases when you gamble, take drugs, drink, watch pornography or play a computer game. This has important consequences for the child’s developing brain. It is also the reason they can go into a meltdown when you take their phone away. They are experiencing a form of withdrawal symptoms. Computer games and social media sites are specifically designed to keep children on them as long as possible. In other words they are designed to be addictive. 

It is also worth bearing in mind that time spent looking at a screen is at the cost of real face to face interaction. This is important because it is how our children learn about social relationships.

The second less serious but nevertheless important issue is what happens to their thinking when they look at their phone. The research is now quite clear. If you look at your phone for even a second, it takes 25 minutes for your thinking to get back to the level prior to checking your phone. This has huge implications for productivity generally, but is especially relevant to children and their school work. Many teenagers find it difficult to do their work without their phone at hand; they are anxious that they will miss something. However, there are two important consequences of this phone checking. Firstly, assignments will take substantially longer than they should and, secondly, the work will be of an inferior quality to that which could be produced if they turned their phones off before they started.

So to conclude – do not ban mobile phones entirely; instead, work with your children and agree on some ground rules such as to have electronic shutdowns in the evening, no mobile phones on while completing homework and no mobile phones at the dinner table.

As with most things in life, there is nothing wrong with a bit of balance.