8th February 2019

I usually make it a rule not to discuss politics in these musings. Ok, I know, I know. Donald Trump. I’m not perfect. Then again, he’s not so much a politician as a handy example of why we need to instil manners and moderation in impressionable young people. I like to think of him more as a useful teaching resource. The President aside though, I don’t normally comment on politicians.


A statement over the weekend by Minister for School Standards, Nick Gibb, drives me to the keyboard. I have a lot of respect for Mr Gibb; the Schools portfolio must seem like being Minister in charge of Militants sometimes, yet he has stayed the course with equanimity. However, his recent pronouncement that schools should ban mobile phones is - in my humble opinion - woefully naïve. Burnt bridges, horses bolted, King Canute etc etc.

His suggestion is no doubt well intentioned. I daresay he hears daily from Heads like me, bemoaning the lemming-like way that children continue to hurl themselves off the cliffs of social media. There is simply no doubt anymore that excessive screen time, the false promise of online anonymity, games designed by people with child psychology degrees and the unfortunate truth that even the most banal YouTube clip is more interesting that revising Chemistry, are doing our children harm.

However, going cold turkey is not the answer. It is only self-regulation, not imposed prohibition, which can cure this addiction. For that is what it is. fMRI scanning has shown the neurological activity of a teenager on social media is akin to that of a serious addict. The brains of chronic gamblers and heroin junkies light up in exactly the same way at the thought of their next hit. Yet nobody is seriously suggesting that banning them from slot machines and syringes on weekdays between the hours of 8:00 – 5:00 is a realistic solution. Interestingly, the feel-good dose of dopamine in the brain of a smartphone user appears to come at the moment they reach for their phone. That is, before they even know whether there is a text, pic or affirming ‘Like’ waiting there for them. They are addicted to anticipation.

Hence, banning phones at school can only delay, not deter, the desire. Dealing with the intrusions phones present to learning is frustrating for teachers, but it is nothing compared to trying to enforce the unenforceable. Picture 960 Gollums all climbing the classroom walls in search of their “preciousssss” every day. The teenage brain is not wired to function under duress. If its basic primal needs are not met, it simply cannot learn. Sadly, feeling connected with others is one of those needs. Fear Of Missing Out is now in the top five threats to teen life. Right alongside deprivation of air, food, water and shelter, loss of their phone is terminal.

Apart from anything else, it is not just mobile phones anymore (even that name has become an anachronism – no self-respecting teen actually uses the telephone function). The apps that drive us to despair are now ubiquitous and pupils are just as likely to be using them on any digital devices. Wireless laptops, tablets, watches, headphones, even smartshoes to name but a few. Are we to ban them also?

Ban the apps then, you might say. We do block many on the School network, but most devices also have 4G connection as well these days. Besides, which apps to block? Facebook last year, but that’s now for “old people.” SnapChat, certainly. There is absolutely no legitimate purpose for that dangerous cesspit. I’d rather give a toddler a hand grenade than let a young person loose on SnapChat – there’s less chance they would hurt themselves or others. However, even SnapChat is probably tomorrow’s outdated Facebook, destined to be replaced by the next insidious anti-social media platform to come along.

The answer (and I readily concede it is far from fool-proof) is to keep doing what schools are set up to do. Teach.

Teach children the skills of self-control and rewards of delayed gratification. 

Teach etiquette and the fact prospective employers/ bank managers/marriage partners are unlikely to want to share your undivided attention with a small black screen for very long. 

Teach that there is nobody, repeat, NOBODY, to whom it is safe or sensible to send intimate pictures of oneself. 

Teach that the virtual world is not virtual when it comes to hurting other people and that you are accountable for anything you say or do online that affects school life. Bullying has always plagued schools, but at least the online variety leaves incontrovertible hard evidence (even if the bully is stupid enough to think that SnapChat ‘actually’ makes it disappear).

Teach that passive membership of a chat group makes you responsible for anything you see in it, regardless of whether it is by or about you. 

Teach young people to spend less time curating their life online and more time actually living it. 

Teach them that connected digital devices are the most wondrous, life enhancing, liberating things they will ever encounter, but simultaneously the most potentially destructive and demoralising.

In short, teach children to manage their phone at school and beyond. Not easy, but much harder to do if they don’t have it with them when they are in our care. The Schools Minister may advocate a ban, but I continue to favour our raison d'être, education.

Political rant over. Could have been worse, at least I didn’t mention Brexit…

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