As we move into a new decade, we must be clear-eyed about the risks young people face—and get them off their smartphonesby Katharine Birbalsingh / December 9, 2019 / Leave a comment
Unsupervised access to the internet for children has to change. In the 2020s parents need to wake up and understand the dangers and harm done to their children by smartphones.
The big tech CEOs already know this, of course. They don’t allow their own children internet access on their smartphones, if their children have a phone at all. Steve Jobs didn’t let his children use the iPad when it came out in 2010. Both he and Bill Gates preferred their children to spend time around the dinner table talking about books and history. Much to the surprise of ordinary people, Silicon Valley parents compete to get their children into the Waldorf School of the Peninsula—where electronic devices are banned.
Yet the rest of us are handing smartphones to our toddlers, using them as babysitters with little idea of the damage we are doing. You want to know why your child hates reading? Because books cannot possibly compete with a smartphone.
Want to know why your child is glued to apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat? It’s because they are making inappropriate friends. Young boys are meeting gang members, young girls are frolicking with older men—some are even being groomed. I have seen this first-hand at Michaela Community School where I am headmistress. We keep telling our families to beware of the smartphone but many take little notice until it is too late.
When the mums are in tears, inconsolable because their daughters have gone off the rails and will not get excellent GCSEs, what should I say? I run to the parents of the younger children and beg them to learn from the mistakes of these other parents. But too often parents need to learn the hard lesson for themselves.
Recently one of our girls met a “boy” via a social media app designed for children to meet other children. He was 25 years old, texted about having just come out of the shower and asked her for naked photos. Luckily, her mother intervened in time and we were able to involve the police. When the girl was asked why she was in touch with the man, she said she liked feeling attractive. She is 12 years old. The situation might have been a lot worse. But it might also have been better had the mother not given her child the smartphone in the first place.
For some children, it is their mental health that suffers. They feel lonely, anxious or depressed. Family communication breaks down because everyone in the family is permanently glued to their screen, and the child can only feel happy if they get a certain number of likes on social media. But what they really need is their parents’ love and attention.
Snapchat, Instagram and WhatsApp know that addiction is key for their own continued success. They have entire teams whose sole job is to make the app more addictive. Addiction means more money. Instagram will hold back informing you about how many likes you’ve clocked up until you disappear off the app for a while, and then… BING! Suddenly the news of being liked flashes across your screen. And they’ve drawn you back in once more. What 13-year-old can resist that?
Pupils love WhatsApp because it is the perfect tool to cheat. One person does the homework, posts it on the app and the others copy it. Parents sees their child hard at work at the computer, or locked away in their bedroom “working”—but the real work is not happening. When they fail their GCSEs, the parents are baffled because they were convinced that their child was working really hard.
At Michaela, we run a “Digital Detox” system where children can drop their smartphones at school for days, weeks or even months. Many take this up, especially when their exams are approaching. We strongly encourage parents not to buy their children smartphones and if they do, we help them install Screentime on the phone so that they can ban certain sites and limit their usage.
I believe Michaela’s approach is the way of the future, and I am hoping that in the 2020s, our thorough understanding of the dangers presented by smartphones will become common knowledge.