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Digital detoxing

Headmaster Grant Lander —

In June, the Lower House of the French parliament passed a law banning the use of mobile phones anywhere on school grounds from this September, stating that it was a “detox” law for a younger generation increasingly addicted to screens.

The new law bans cellphone use in school playgrounds, at break times and anywhere on school premises. Legislation passed in 2010 already states that children should not use phones in class. The Guardian newspaper stated that President Emmanuel Macron’s party believed that ‘banning phones in schools meant that all children now had a legal right to disconnect from digital pressures during the school day’.

Over the past few months, media have heightened awareness over the challenges of use of digital technology by teenagers, with banner headlines which have included, “Digital wellbeing is the new fitness craze”; “Is teen cellphone addiction the new gateway drug?”, “Why you are addicted to social media?”, “Teenager claims he attempted suicide after being so obsessed with computer games”, “For your eyes sake, put the phones to bed early”.

Many of us rely on smartphones to help us with daily activities from waking up in the morning, reading the news, accessing the internet, through to communicating with friends and family. However, a rise in smartphone use has also led to a growing rise in mental health issues.

Dr Michelle Dickinson, creator of ‘Nanogirls’, reported on a Deloitte survey in Britain, which found 79% of people checked apps on their phone an hour before going to sleep and 55% checked their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. She stated that this ‘increasing dependency on our smartphones is partly caused by our apps being engineered to feed our needy desires to interact with them. Excessive smartphone use can disrupt our sleep patterns, change our social interaction and reduce our productivity at work’.

For young people, the consequences are even more significant. Dr Dickinson goes on to quote from the Journal of Clinical Psychological Science, which found that 40% of teenagers who spend five or more hours on their phones had thought about suicide, compared to 28% of those who used their phones for less than one hour a day. The study unsurprisingly found teenagers who spent more time socialising with friends in real life or participating in team sports had a much lower risk for depression and suicide. This research is a huge endorsement for St Paul’s compulsory sport policy and the no-device outdoor education experience down at our Tihoi Venture campus.

There has recently also been a big push towards ‘digital wellness’. Apple unveiled a new ‘Do Not Disturb’ at bedtime, grouped notification and screen time feature to reduce distraction. These dashboard features offer a detailed breakdown for parents of time spent on smartphones each day by their sons or daughters and act like a fitness tracker.

Early in term two, we had approaches from a number of Year 9 boarding parents asking that we extend the ban of smartphones from the middle through to the end of their son’s Year 9 experience. Encouragingly, 88.52% of our boarding families, when surveyed, did not think that cellphones were important for their son (i.e. 1/6 or 2/6 in importance) at Year 9 level. With many comments such as: “I don’t think they need phones at school”; “Our son has a smartphone at home, but we don’t feel it’s critical to his survival to have it at school”; “We very strongly support no cellphones for Year 9 boys, especially smartphones. We have noticed greater emotional investment in genuine friendships and high levels of commitment to school activities from our son. We feel this is precisely because he is not on (or even worrying) about social media”; “I have no issue with the banning of all cellphones throughout the entire time my son is at St Paul’s”; “St Paul’s unique point of difference is the emphasis on social development and nurturing a cooperative and collegial environment within the school. Limiting access to social media for the younger boys can only enhance this”; “No smartphones until Year 11 please”; “We don’t honestly think that they need a smartphone, even in Year 10”.

At the start of term three, all of our students bringing cellphones into lessons were asked to place them automatically upon entry into boxes at the front of each classroom.

We realise that cellphones are handy for ease of communication between parents and their son or daughter (i.e. to organise transport arrangements after school; to send reminders during the day, etc). However, we are uncertain about the real benefits to their educational experience at St Paul’s Collegiate School of junior students (Year 9 and 10) having smartphones at school.

Dr Mark Griffith, a leading addiction expert, believes that social media firms such as Facebook and Snap Chat have developed an arsenal of techniques to keep our young people glued to their products – ‘What they do is maximise the time that people are on their network because that relates to the advertising that they can raise.’

One of the key benefits of schooling is to enhance opportunities of social interaction and engagement between teenagers, to help young people grow their confidence and self-belief and their face-to-face communication skills. There is nothing worse than seeing a group of three or four teenagers sitting on a bench, each self-absorbed in texting or on a different social media app.

Secondary schools have a duty to keep students safe when they are under their care. Some of our students use Virtual Private Network or VPN (i.e. free software) to circumvent the school’s firewalls and hence the filtering set-up in our server system, or hotspot, using their mobile phone data to access games or internet sites (i.e. pornography, etc), which as a school, we deem inappropriate for them to access and try our hardest to restrict during normal operating hours.

We are more fortunate than many schools in that on the whole our student cohort adheres to and respects school rules that cellphones can only be used in the Student Centre or boarding houses between 8.00am and 3.30pm. They recognise that the use of mobile phones around the grounds, in class or chapel, could result in their phone being confiscated and held in the school safe for a month.

But for our most junior students (Year 9 and 10), we want to go a step further and ban the bringing of smartphones onto the school grounds. According to a New York Times report, both USA teens and adults check their smartphones 150 times per day (or every six minutes) and on average send 110 texts per day. For many teenagers, texting is passé, they have upgraded to platforms such as Snap Chat and Instagram. Smartphones and social media thrive on the appeal they have to the brain’s desire for reward chemistry. Studies have shown that they can interfere with sleep cycles, increase aggression and are a potential source of huge distraction.

Towards the end of this term, all prospective Year 9 parents and future Year 10 parents (i.e. both day and boarding) will be able to access an online survey, to provide feedback on whether families would support this change of smartphone policy in our junior school. We don’t propose to ban cellphones which have the most basic communications functions, just those that enable the user to access the internet. We look forward to ascertaining your support for such an initiative.