As secondary schools up and down the country prepare to introduce strict new bans on mobile phones from September, we’re taking a closer look at the impact these devices are having on our younger generations – in particular the role they play in education, parenting, relationships and mental health. We’re asking, and answering, difficult questions over age appropriateness, school mobile phone policies, cyber bullying and social media.
We surveyed 1,000 parents across the UK about issues relating to children and mobile phones, including the use of smartphones in schools, the increasing trend of cyberbullying among young people, and a look at what age children should be given smartphones and how this is monitored.
Smartphones in Schools
Following calls for a total ban on mobile phones in schools from MP Matthew Hancock, it’s currently a topic of much debate. From our sample, almost a quarter (24.38%) of parents felt that phones should not be allowed in schools under any circumstances, whilst 33.87% of respondents believed phones should be only used in emergencies. Just 1.5% felt their access should be unrestricted. It seems there’s a slight disconnect between what parents feel is the correct application of mobile phones in schools and how schools choose to operate.
Age & Smartphone Ownership
Another key subject we wanted to gain a consensus on was at what age parents are actually giving their children smartphones. Common sense would dictate that, as smartphones have become more accessible, the average age for initial use would decrease. This argument seems to be supported by research from the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS), which states that smartphone internet usage increased by 6% among 5 – 7-year-olds between 2016 and 2017.
This data contradicts professional warnings about the age of smartphone ownership among children. Dr. Jon Goldin, Vice Chairman of the Royal College of Psychologists, has suggested that smartphones shouldn’t be given to children under the age of 11, and that peer pressure among parents and children has led to the increase we’ve seen.
Through our research we found that 53.25% of parents would give a child their first mobile phone between the age of 10 – 13, which is in-keeping with Dr. Goldin’s recommendations. The most likely reason for this is that, at age 11, children generally start secondary school, which coincides with greater independence – for example, children may be commuting to and from school by themselves. In contrast, 6.39% of parents give a child their first mobile device at the age of 6 or under.
When we asked parents whether they knew if their child had been a victim of cyberbullying, we found that 29.37% said it had happened or they suspected that it had. This contradicts data from 2017 collected by the NSPCC that suggests closer to 20% of young people have been affected by cyberbullying. Of course, there is a margin for error regarding parents’ suspicion, however, these numbers seem to suggest that cyberbullying is on the rise.
Despite its prevalence in the public discourse, cyberbullying is not parents’ biggest concern when it comes to letting their child have a smartphone. Our data shows that ‘talking to strangers’ is the greatest concern to a majority of parents, with 40.96% of our sample highlighting that as such, while cyberbullying was the primary concern of 25.77% of them. Twice as many parents were worried about theft (18.8%) than school disruption (9.7%).
There is constant debate about the effects smartphones are having on the education system, whether that be through distraction, cyberbullying and mental health, or loss and theft. It’s an argument that’s being had throughout all levels of the educational establishment – from teachers and pupils to parents and MPs, ranging from calls for smartphone use to become widespread to some government figures calling for outright bans.
The main thrust of those seeking to ban mobiles is that they can, when not properly regulated, cause a distraction within lessons, not just for the student using the device, but for other students too. While there’s some enlightening data in terms of academic progress, it does not take into account other reasons that students may want to have a smartphone in school – such as for emergency cases. This may be why a majority of schools have not imposed an outright ban on mobile phones, but rather have polices that restrict the use of phones during the school day. Our research, which looked at the mobile phone policies of schools throughout the UK, showed that only 23% of schools had a full ban in place. On the other hand, only 14% allow phones to be used during break times.
School mobile phone policies across the UK
|Punishment for breaching policy|
|Protocol||Number||Detention||Short Confiscation |
|Long Confiscation |
|Other Punishment||Not Specified|
|Not allowed to be brought in at all||22||3||9||1||2||9|
|Must be given to a teacher/ taken to office||18||1||7||0||1||9|
|Allowed but no use||15||2||9||1||0||4|
|Allowed to use with permission but stay switched off||25||2||13||0||3||9|
|Allowed, only used during breaks and before/ after school||13||1||12||0||0||1|
Those schools with a positive mobile phone policy give a variety of reasons for their inclusion, ranging from students using them to and from school to them being a useful educational tool in the classroom.
For some schools, it was issues aside from distraction that prompted a ban. Sally Carrington, Assistant Head at Shoeburyness High explains that misuse of camera phones as problems with loss and theft prompted a ban, and one that has seen “a major impact on improving results”.
Helen Mulley, editor of Teach Secondary magazine and Teachwire.net, highlights additional pressures: “Regardless of whether there is a ban in place or not, these devices blur the line between what happens in the classroom and outside of it in a way that educators have not really had to tackle before.”
Dr. Michael Carr-Gregg, a psychologist and author who specialises in the effect that technology has on children, suggests that the best way to combat these issues as they arise is to, “Provide young people with skills, knowledge, and strategies to use mobile phones in a safe, smart and responsible way. this can be done by a combination of cyber safety education in schools, the strategic use of technology to regulate use along with training parents to teach their children how to use smartphones responsibly.”
For parents and young people seeking resources around mobile phone usage in schools, there’s an abundance of free information and research available online. Charities can be especially useful; many non-profits run campaigns and publish research papers in collaboration with academics, industry experts, and MPs. As well as campaigning for improvements in children’s wellbeing, these charities also offer support and advice to whoever needs it.
Maithreyi Rajeshkumar from Childnet explains, “The internet is an amazing resource and can be used in a number of positive ways. However, some people use the technology to carry out harmful actions, including cyberbullying.”
loveit coverit have asked charities such as Childnet to give their advice and tips to help inform children, parents, and schools about online safety for young people.
Childnet is a charity with the aim of making the internet a great and safe place for children and young people. It is 1 of 3 charities that make up the UK Safer Internet Centre, which organises Safer Internet Day each year. Childnet works directly with children and young people from the ages of 3 to 18 on a weekly basis, as well as parents, carers, teachers and professionals, finding out about their real experiences online, and the positive things they are doing as well as sharing safety advice.
The NSPCC is one of the UK’s leading children’s charities, fighting to end and prevent child abuse in every shape or form.
The NSPCC is known for running large-scale campaigns which help give children a voice on issues such as online grooming, internet safety and domestic abuse. Their latest campaign is #WildWestWeb, calling on MP Matt Hancock to introduce new laws regulating social media for young people.
The Children’s Society works with the nation’s most vulnerable young individuals, listening to and supporting over 11,000 children and young people in 2017.
This year the charity has collaborated with fellow non-profit YoungMinds and MP Alex Chalk, publishing an inquiry into the impact of cyberbullying on young people’s mental health. The report heard from young people, industry experts, and social media companies on what more can be done to tackle cyberbullying and promote good mental health.
Action for Children helps disadvantaged children across the UK, particularly focusing on children with disabilities, young carers, and individuals in the foster care system.
With the support of The Duchess of Cambridge, Action for Children works alongside local authorities, health services and other charities to ensure all children have the best start in life. The charity is also one of the largest supplier of social care services in the UK, providing support for children and families who are the most in need.
In recent years there’s been a concerted effort by local authorities – most notably regional police forces, MPs and Local Education Authorities (LEAs) – to increase awareness around the subject of children with mobile phones. This has been achieved through a combination of national incentives and more focussed community efforts, such as police and fire services going into schools to discuss the possible dangers of using a mobile phone. These authorities are also useful primary sources for a range of information surrounding the topic, as they generally have the most exposure and influence to provide the data.
Here’s the steps that individual authorities are taking to improve mobile safety or children and young people:
The police are not always the first institution that parents think of with regards to their child’s mobile and online safety – in fact, our research shows that less than 10% of parents would go straight to the police in the event that their child was a victim of cyberbullying. This may be due to the fact that many people do not know what actually constitutes cyberbullying or that it can be classified as a severe crime, especially if hate speech or ‘sexting’ is involved. One of the most important pieces of information that parents, and mobile-savvy children, don’t know is that criminal responsibility starts from the age of 10 – so what can seem harmless could potentially be a criminal act.
Janet Bloomfield from Essex Police explains that where the police are involved in cases of cyberbullying, this is mainly because it happens outside of school: “Cyberbullying doesn’t happen in school – it’s before/after or at the weekend…I’m afraid you can tell a child on a Monday of the risks and by a Friday sleepover with mates, it’s all forgotten and they’ve made a mistake.”
In an effort to take time-consuming community outreach off of local police forces, the fire service has stepped up to help teach young children about online safety. One of the main ways that they have achieved this is by going into schools and having a frank and open discussion about the threats posed to young people. A great example of this is Crucial Crew, a multi-national agency educational initiative that aims to teach children about various dangers, ranging from fire safety to protecting yourself online.
Local Councils & LEAs
While local councils are rarely directly involved in the issue of child mobile phone protection, it is through them that a lot of relevant data is accrued. This mainly comes from third parties who are commissioned by that region’s Childrens Commissioner to gather data from constituents about a variety of issues, of which children’s online safety is one of many.
However, there are multiple branches of local government that are dedicated to the protection of children using the internet or mobile phones. For example, Local Safeguarding Children Boards are independent organisations that’re imbedded in each local council, with the specific goal of promoting better welfare for the children in that area. This comes in many forms, but more recently we are seeing a push for online safety and responsible use of smartphones.
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