The Mobile Phone Debate

I’ve been following the debate over the use of mobile phones at schools and the impact of screen time on children and adults with interest over the last few weeks.A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to a journalist from The Times who was aware that Heathfield had what some schools might see as a draconian approach to mobile phone use at school.

Draconian – in that we are very strict about the use of mobile phones, especially by our younger pupils, in an effort to protect them from some of the obvious pitfalls of smartphone usage at the tender age of 11, 12 and 13.

Our current mobile phone policy only allows our younger pupils to have a very basic phone model and designated times during which they can use it to phone home. At all other times, this phone has to be handed in to their housemistress. We believe that education is the key to sensible use of mobile phones but we also recognise that maturity levels change as girls move through the school so it is essential to protect the younger members of the school at an age where they may be unaware of some of the obvious dangers of internet use.

Older girls are allowed smartphones to use at certain times only – but we need to accept that we must start having a certain level of trust in their sensible use of the internet through a mobile phone as our pupils grow.

We have found this trust – while very occasionally being breached – bears fruit when older pupils start to advise their younger classmates on potential web hazards.

We do not currently allow any mobile phones in the classroom block. However, there have been occasions when we have trialled the use of mobile phones in the classroom as an education aid. Again, this has been debated in the press over the summer with some schools asserting that they believe the way forward in the classroom could be with the teacher guiding a class of pupils to do in-class research using their smartphones.

At the end of the day, a smartphone is a computer in mobile phone form. I would be wary of intensive use of this kind of classroom format – not only could it be gimmicky but it could run the risk of contravening our very carefully considered and implemented mobile phone policy and confusing the children we are seeking to protect.

On a separate but not entirely unrelated note, a respected Cambridge University study hit the headlines last week after it revealed that their three year research programme showed that just an hour of television watching or screen use a day could affect their GCSE grades.

The research was part of a study looking at factors affecting the mental health, well-being and academic achievement of teenagers as they make the journey to adulthood.

According to the TV watchdog Ofcom, the UK’s 11 to 15-year-olds spend three hours a day on average in front of TVs or computer screens. For participants in the study, the typical amount of screen time per day was four hours.

Reading and homework unsurprisingly radically improved performance – with an hour spent on homework each night boosting performance by about four grades.

But even pupils who did sufficient homework still suffered if they also watched television for an hour or more.

Unsurprisingly this contrary advice must leave parents confused: on the one hand heads and teachers are pointing to a brave new world where pupils are interacting and interfacing with their teachers through smartphone screens in the classroom and on the other we are warned that just an hour of television or screen viewing adversely affects children’s grades.

The shining light in the latest study though is that simple reading can radically improve grades. Let us hope that reading is from an old-fashioned book rather than a Kindle screen.

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