Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 22 February 2024



Children are the victims in this phoney war


Welcome to another round of the Potemkin battle over phones in schools, in which both sides deal in fictions. The government has announced “new” plans to ban smartphone use in schools, relying on the fiction that phones are not already banned, when they mostly are.

On the other side, among the unions and head teachers denouncing this “Tory nonsense”, the fiction is that phones are already banned in schools, when they are, in effect, not so banned.

Let me explain. Most schools have had policies banning phones from lessons for years; equally, most are either unwilling or unable to enforce these bans or don’t extend them to break times. The new government guidance won’t change this, meaning that we can expect further rounds of this phoney war.

Still, this does at least provide a chance to look at how we got here. Everyone agrees that children who are struggling to grasp algebra and Keats shouldn’t be subjected to the temptation of TikTok videos under their desks. Yet they are and, for the most part, attempts to stop them by adults are grossly inadequate.

That is because change would require schools and parents to start swimming hard against the tide, tackling an epidemic of smartphone addiction in which they themselves are also caught. The prevailing cultural norm is that 97 per cent of 12-year-olds own smartphones.


From the age of 12 to 15, nearly half of all children start posting their own content on video-streaming sites, and most spend 50 per cent more time per day on social media than actually socialising with friends, a stage of device-use that Ofcom euphemistically calls the “connecting and creating” phase.

To get phones out of classrooms, you need to upend these habits by removing smartphones entirely from the late childhood years of the nation’s teenagers. And in the absence of meaningful government action to ban smartphones and social media for under-16s, that is precisely what growing numbers of parents have decided to do.

In the UK, thousands are joining groups vowing not to buy their children smartphones until the age of 16; the same is happening in Spain, while in Ireland parents in the village of Greystones have pledged to wait at least until 11.

Grieving parents, like those of Brianna Ghey, Molly Russell and Breck Bednar, all affected by the online addiction ratchet in different ways, are trying to call time on the madness of ubiquitous teen social media use, giving the movement moral force. The issue is popping up in letters pages, on the radio and in parliament almost weekly.

This is happening because parents can see with their own eyes what the data is increasingly showing: rampant smartphone use has precipitated a marked and significant decline in child and teenage mental health across the developed world.

Rates of suicide, depression and anxiety have been rising for the past decade and psychologists studying the data (most prominently Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge) believe we are running out of alternative explanations for these trends. Haidt has even found that across multiple studies for teenage girls, the average correlation between increased depression or anxiety and heavy social media use is stronger than the correlation between IQ impairment and lead poisoning.

But to many parents, this doesn’t need explaining. They are engaged daily in the battles it produces, not just the regular battles of parenthood, but the toxic, emotionally volatile battle waged with an addict against her addiction.

Against this growing outbreak of evidence-based common sense, a certain type of resistance has emerged. Initially, this took the form of knee-jerk libertarianism. Nigel Farage, who a few years ago was arguing that 16-year-olds should not get the vote because they “live on their mobile phones”, declared the idea of banning under-16s from owning smartphones “ludicrous” because it meant “not [treating] you as grown-ups in any way”.


Then the likes of Childline’s Dame Esther Rantzen and the NSPCC waded in with the revelation that most children who use their services do so online, concluding with stunning stupidity that this must mean kids need smartphones when the evidence shows this to be the opposite of the truth. It is children’s excessive exposure to the online world that is fuelling rising demand for these charities’ mental health or protection services and, not surprisingly, causing smartphones to be their medium of choice when seeking help.

The latest resistance to change comes from trendy dads and modish head teachers. The main arguments seem to be, firstly, that adults are no better than children at using smartphones responsibly because they share fake news on Brexit or Trump or whatever and, secondly, that children need to “learn to live with/use” modern technology and ought to do so from a young age.

The first of these arguments is clearly irrelevant to devices that are hijacking the healthy cognitive development of adolescents. One might as well argue that children should be exposed to pollution because they’ll get affected by it anyway as adults — never mind that young lungs are more vulnerable, or that adults are more responsible for themselves than teens are.

But the second line of thinking is equally wrong, as shown by its lack of precision. What exactly are children “learning” from doom-scrolling Snapchat? What cognitive ability are they “developing” by absorbing viral memes, watching porn and exchanging nude pictures of themselves? Show me any actual evidence that smartphone and social media use are educational aids rather than rampant, addictive distractions.

No one can, because in fact the studies show that “learning” something on a screen activates less of the brain than using a pencil and paper. Attention spans are shrinking, not growing. The childhood “preparation” needed to handle social media and smartphones sensibly as adults should involve training brains to be capable of long periods of concentration, emotional stability and discipline in the face of distraction.

Eight months ago, I argued here that it was high time the government enacted a ban on smartphone ownership (and social media use) for under-16s. That view was seen by many, especially those in older generations, as radical and excessive.

But in the past month, something has shifted. Young parents, if not the old or the politicians, are waking up. Well, if parents have to lead, so be it. We’ll know we are succeeding when the careerists and cowards start jumping on the bandwagon. It might be sooner than you think.

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