In 2018, loveit coverit partnered with charities and experts to produce an independent piece of research focusing on the growing impact of smartphones on the lives of Britain’s children. Over the past four years the world as we know it has changed significantly due to events such as digitalisation and the COVID-19 pandemic. Updating studies such as this one is significant in a time where technology is evolving fast and we’re still unsure of how it’s affecting us.
With many changes to our relationship with technology, we’re curious to see how that has affected how we view our mobile phones and even their place in schools.
In 2018, there was talk about banning mobile phones from schools and our research showed that only 23% of schools had a full ban in place and 24.38% of parents felt that phones should not be allowed in schools. In 2021, a country-wide ban was considered with 57% of parents in support. This fell through in 2022 when the UK government announced that schools can ban phones as they see fit, but they don’t see the need to step in and help at this time.
When discussing banning smartphones from schools Lucy Howard, from BulliesOut, suggests “it can be helpful to limit distractions from smartphones during the school day. In the same way that other distractions aren’t allowed during the school day why then are phones any different? In the workplace we are limited in our use of them, that same logic can surely be applied to the school day too.”
How the topic of smartphones is handled in schools in the future can be a great opportunity to encourage safe online behaviours and teach responsibility.
Compared to a few years ago, children are starting to own mobile phones at a much younger age. Initially, the age children receive their first phone coincides with when they start school, typically secondary school, with parents wanting their children to be able to contact them in case of emergencies going to and from school, but this is lowering. In our 2018 study, we found that 6.39% of parents gave a child their first mobile device at the age of 6 or under. In comparison, The Guardian reported in 2020 that 53% of youngsters owned mobile phones by around the age of seven.
One of the reasons children are receiving phones at younger ages is the positives of it being a step toward independence for them. Adding to this, it is also a way of giving children a sense of responsibility. There are impacts because of this though, such as possibly creating behavioural problems and creating a distraction from school and on the streets.
An unfortunate consequence of children owning smartphones at such a young age is the rise in cyberbullying among younger children. Owning a smartphone and being online at younger ages is exposing them to these harsh behaviours. Data released from The Office for National Statistics has revealed some changes happening with cyberbullying since 2018.
In our original study in 2018, the NSPCC determined that close to 20% of children had been affected by cyberbullying. In contrast in 2020, The Office for National Statistics reported that one in five children disclosed being bullied online. Although, it can be difficult to compare the numbers considering 26% revealed they didn’t report their problem and only 38% of cyberbullying victims are willing to admit it to their parents.
Bullying during COVID-19 moved from the playground to cyberbullying as children were attending school from home during various lockdowns. These conditions created an opportunity for increased rates of online bullying as there wasn’t any in-person contact. We’re waiting to see now if post-pandemic, the cyberbullying rates stay as high or slowly start to drop.
When it comes to cyberbullying, starting the process of helping a young person can be complicated.
Louise Burfitt-Dons, the Founder Director of ACT Against Bullying suggests that parents should immediately make a sensible plan to tackle the problem before ramping up the pressure of the situation. In other words, don’t respond until the facts have been well established. Her direct advice to a parent would be:
Technology has changed a great deal over the past few years. Parents are starting to embrace technology in their homes, which is shown by the decreasing age at which children receive their first phones. A healthy solution to all this seems to be encouraging safe practices online and teaching responsibility through these behaviours. Parents should be involved and monitor their child’s internet use while schools try different approaches that may include banning phones altogether.
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
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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