The Beauty of Uninterrupted Sleep

From the Headmaster's Desk, September 11, 2017

Some of you may be aware that I have been considering mobile phone usage, namely, reading the latest research and learning about best practice in independent schools.

Obviously mobile phones are marvellous pieces of technology. I have one, and many of the apps have become a regular part of my life – everything from logging my exercise, to finding parking, or to booking a taxi.

But it was Aristotle who advised, centuries before mobile phones even existed, that moderation is important. And setting boundaries is essential – we must know when it is okay to use our mobiles and when we should put the device away.

Some of the research that I read last year focussed on students just like you. This study surveyed nearly 3,000 pupils between the ages of 11-18 at independent schools like this. There were several findings that caused concern:

  • Almost half of students admitted they check their mobile device after going to bed.
  • A quarter of those check their device more than 10 times a night.
  • A quarter also said they spend more than an hour on their device after going to bed.
  • A third of these students said their parents were not aware.
  • 94% said they were on social media, although a large number also said they watched films, listened to music and many boys were playing games.

Most worrying were the following statistics:

  • 68% of students said that using their mobile phone at night negatively affects their progress in school.
  • A quarter of students blame their tiredness at school to their mobile use at night.
  • Almost half of students sleep with their phone next to their bed.
  • The bottom line is this: when your phone is flashing, buzzing and pinging through the night, it is a barrier to proper sleep.

Many of you will be aware that I sent a letter to all parents on Friday. I normally do this at the beginning and end of each term. In my letter last Friday, I asked of your parents one key thing: that they do not allow you to take your mobile phone into your bedroom overnight. Of course I cannot enforce this, and it is up to your family how you manage your usage at home, but research shows that the most common detrimental outcome of a student your age using a mobile phone at night is sleep deprivation, which of course directly impacts on the progress that you can make in a school day. There was even research done by Cambridge University that suggests students who spend an extra hour on screens a day will see a fall in GCSE results equivalent to two grades overall.

So how do we manage these amazing devices? I’ve boiled it down to four tips, based largely on the advice of Digital Awareness UK, which is the organisation that conducted the research above:

  • Avoid using your phone before going to bed. Before bedtime you should try to relax and wind down; technology can be distracting and disruptive, raising anxiety or alertness. Experts recommend avoiding screens for 90 minutes before going to bed. Try other things, like reading a good book, having a bath, or even yoga or meditation. There is also a scientific reason here: A number of studies have shown that ‘blue light’, the artificial lighting emitted through screens, can disrupt your sleep. It’s for chemical reasons – the light suppresses the secretion of melatonin, which is the hormone that makes you sleepy. So stay away from screens before bedtime, and you’ll find it easier to fall asleep.
  • Use airplane mode at night. Of course my preference is that you put your phone on airplane mode in the kitchen, away from your bedroom, but if you do have your phone in your room, at least put it across the room and off. The key point is this: keep your phone in a place that prevents you from seeing, hearing, or reaching for it.
  • Avoid unprompted checking. It’s not necessary to reach for the device constantly to see what you’re missing. Have set times when you check emails or use your phone, and other times when you do not – when you’re asleep is probably the best time not to check your phone!
  • Take a digital detox. If you’re aware that the phone is having an impact on your sleep or productivity during the day, then take a break. Some ideas were to turn your phone off after 8pm or to set Do Not Disturb timers whilst you’re doing your homework. I know one school where the pupils in the Sixth Form Centre have Tuesday has a No Mobile Day in their common room, and they play cards and board games at break and lunchtimes. I’m open to any ideas that you might have.

Here in school you may be relieved to know that I have no plans to change our existing rules, which state simply this: pupils may use their mobile phones at break or lunchtime in their common room, or following the direct instruction of a member of staff. Otherwise, these devices should be out of sight. The rule is slightly more strict for Year 7: you can only use your mobile between 1:45pm and 2pm, as we want you to get to know each other and everything on offer in the School this year, rather than spend all your free time looking at a screen.

Whilst we are not changing any rules, I have asked all staff to enforce the rules. If you’re caught using your mobile when you’re not supposed to, then it will be confiscated and given to your head of year or director of section, and you can retrieve it at the end of the day.

I’m particularly keen that pupils do not use phones when walking around our beautiful campus. I want this to be a community where we look each other in the eye and say hello. I also think it is inappropriate to use digital devices at mealtimes. Even more rude than ignoring someone as you walk by is sitting opposite them at a table and ignoring them. So do not use your mobile in the dining hall.

I hope this advice is helpful and might help some of you improve your habits with regard to digital technology. We have arranged for Digital Awareness UK to come and visit us here, and they will offer presentations the week after next to all of you and also to parents. There is also another survey that they are conducting this term; I will circulate a link to this today and I encourage you to complete it this week. It is entirely anonymous but will give them more data.

Aristotle did not like extremes – he thought excess was a vice, but he also thought that too little of a good thing was a defect.

And so I come back to Aristotle. Aristotle did not like extremes – he thought excess was a vice, but he also thought that too little of a good thing was a defect. He believed that you could find the golden mean – the middle way, as the Buddha called it. Banning mobile phones in school would be counterproductive and unworkable; this is one extreme I want to avoid. However, having no rules would also be counterproductive, in the same way that if there were no rules around driving cars, then our roads would be absolute chaos. Aristotle believed that if you follow the golden mean and behave virtuously, then you will flourish. And, for me, there is nothing better than the thought of all 762 of you flourishing.

I hope you have a great week and a great term, with night after night of uninterrupted sleep this year.

Book an open event Apply online Keep exploring