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Headmaster's Blog - Buying Your Child a Phone?

As Christmas nears, the Sanderson children are keeping everything crossed that Santa’s sack has a mobile phone or two inside. As I find myself being dragged into the Samsung versus iPhone debate (a first-world problem, if ever there was one), a certain Scrooge-like feeling descends. Why do they need a mobile phone at all?

Because everyone else has one, of course. And when I look at the statistics, I can understand how they feel in a minority. Ofcom’s annual report on children’s media usage, published just a couple of weeks ago, found that, incredibly, 1% of three to four year olds already own a smartphone. This figure rises to 5% of five to seven year olds, 39% of eight to 11 year olds and 83% of those aged 12 to 15. Meanwhile, the WeForum reports that 2.1 billion people worldwide have social media sites, with mobile phones accounting for 72% of traffic directed to them.

Undoubtedly, there are many advantages to keeping in touch on the move: convenience, social interaction and global connectivity; along with broader benefits of mass participation in citizenship, access to world-wide learning forums and the facility to quickly share advice and news, for example after the recent terror attacks in Manchester and London.

Yet as we learn to adjust to this technological avalanche, do we need to be cognisant of any draw backs? One of the major concerns is the proliferation of so-called fake news. Encouragingly, Ofcom’s report found that, as children mature, they have a healthy scepticism to some of the news they receive and are also able to distinguish between fact and advert. Another issue is the exposure to extremist views, and the ease with which they can be shared, with little accountability. An understanding not quite appreciated by a certain @realdonaldtrump? However, for me, as a parent and teacher, the overwhelming worry is the additional pressure which a constant stream of social media places on young people. The stress of being left out; the friendships which blow up overnight, after a misworded chat; the lack of privacy and space; and never being able to escape or erase your mistakes. These are very real problems for many of the young people in our care. As adults, and as a school, how can we help?

We recently held a series of pilot workshops with Third and Sixth Form students, led by a group from Royal Holloway University, designed to elicit the perspectives of the children on their use of technology and its impact on them and their lives. It included creative techniques to encourage reflection and debate on e-safety. One of the outcomes of the pilots has been our decision to put students in the lead in the development of a new school-wide mobile phone usage policy, which will roll out next year. It also showed us the value of peer role modelling and so our Pastoral Prefects are now involved in delivering social media focused PHSE lessons to students in the Second to Fourth Forms.

For parents, I would say: please don’t be afraid to set boundaries. Insist on itemised phone bills for your child’s phone, remove it overnight and set up filters. Remind your child how to use their phone properly: the age-old virtues of awareness, compassion, consideration of others and self-discipline apply to phone use as to everything else. Stay alert to any mood or behaviour changes; a high percentage of unpleasantness amongst teenagers happens by phone. Keep listening for indicators that might suggest your child is receiving, or involved with, such behaviour. And if you’re getting your child a new phone for Christmas, please encourage them to take good care of it – so many get broken or lost, which is an absolute catastrophe when you are 14.

On a lighter note, I leave you with Christmassy news that the most popular ringtones of the season are: Carol of the Bells, Drummer Boy, Joy to the world, O Holy Night, Deck the HallsandJingle Bells (the Alvin and the Chipmunk version, naturally). Merry Christmas to you all. #scrooge.