Let’s Talk about Mobile Phones

From the Headmaster's Desk, February 11, 2019

I’ve spoken about mobile phones and screen time before in assemblies, and this was a hot topic in the news last week. Both The Times and The Telegraph had articles about screen time last weekend, and several Heads wrote letters in response. Some Heads have gone down the line that France has: banning phones entirely in schools. Other Heads, like myself, have a more measured response.

Mobile phones are in fact handheld computers. The new iPhone today is much more powerful than the Apple IIGS that I used when I learned to program when I was 13. The processing speed of my iPhone is 300 times more powerful, the memory is 64,000 megabytes instead of one, and it weighs 1.5% of what the computer did. Mobile phones, these handheld computers, are pretty amazing, and their evolution has been extraordinary in my lifetime.

One interesting analogy is to compare the invention of the automobile to the invention of the mobile. When cars first existed they were much more dangerous than they are now. And cars were on the roads before law and society had a chance to regulate them. Things that are standard now – seat belts, car seats, speed limits – didn’t even exist.  Eventually society caught up and now, driving, whilst still a risk, is relatively safe when one follows the Highway Code and rules of the road.

The obvious point about mobile devices is that society and science and the government legislation have not yet caught up. We have established that texting and driving is dangerous – obviously – and now this is illegal, and has been for more than a decade.

However, there are few other restrictions on these devices, and the advice is contradictory. The key reason is this: we do not yet know their impact. The technology has grown and developed faster than we can keep up. For example, the spread of fake news on the internet has had significant impact on elections in recent years and we are only now making sense of this and social media platforms are trying to regulate.

Instagram was criticised extensively and publicly last week by government and medical professionals for allowing graphic images of self-harm on its site, which is now linked to the death of a teenager who committed suicide. Just on Friday, the Instagram CEO acknowledged that the company needs to act now and needs to act responsibly. He admitted the site was ‘not where we need to be on the issues of self-harm and suicide’. He went on to say: ‘social media platforms need to take action to recognise the responsibility they have to their users to ensure the internet is a safe place for young and vulnerable people’. The English Health Secretary met with the bosses at Instagram just last week, demanding they make changes. This is all happening right now. We are catching up with the dangers of social media relating to suicide and self-harm.

But still, we don’t have clear research on these issues. Just last week, Professor Dame Sally Davies, England’s Chief Medical Officer, admitted that there is not yet a proven link between screen-based activities and mental health problems. One of the foremost experts on the teenage brain, Professor Blakemore at UCL, who writes extensively about the teenage brain and how it develops, agrees that there is no data yet on evidence or influence of social media on the brain during these key years of development. And supporters of digital technology note that it can be a force for good, aiding online learning and helping people manage health conditions.

However, last week, the Chief Medical Officer in England did come out with the following guidance to keep young people safe and healthy:

  • Do not use phones and mobile devices at the dinner table – talking as a family is very important for development, as is quality family time.  Parents also need to ensure they give children their proper attention!
  • Keep screens out of the bedroom at bedtime
  • Learn to keep safe online and about cyber-bullying and what someone should do if they are worried
  • Do not use phones when crossing a road or doing any other activity that requires a person’s full attention
  • Make sure people take a break from screens every two hours by getting up and being active

I hope most of you agree that this is pretty sensible advice. Having ‘phone-free’ times at meals is important so that we can have sensible conversations with each other. I’m delighted that this is the environment in our own dining hall in school. When I’m out to dinner at a restaurant with my friends and family, I usually ask them not to get their phone out and if they do, I ask them to put it away. If I’m out to dinner with them, I want to talk to them. The time together is valuable.

I am convinced that getting the phone out of the bedroom is the most important point, and this is the one bit of advice that does have plenty of science behind it. Sleep is so important for your development, your growth, and your daily emotional, psychological state. As I’ve explained previously, if you do not sleep properly, your cognitive functioning is impaired and you will not learn as much during the course of the school day. Memory is also linked to sleep, and you need both.

I have advised all of you, and your parents, that you should sleep with your mobile phones in the other room. Of all the advice I can give you about phones, I do think that this is the most important aspect, because the research shows that the addictive nature of screens impairs your ability to fall sleep, and using your phone throughout the night disrupts your sleep further.

As a society we know clearly now the dangers of smoking, of drunk driving and of high sugar or fatty content in foods. Some scientists that I respect the most acknowledge that we don’t yet know all the impacts that the increased prevalence of screens will have in our lives, but they are all clear on the sleep point. So, let’s sleep well, stay alert and keep learning, so that we can all live our best life. Have a good week.

Book an open event Apply online Keep exploring