School smartphone crackdown: Tory and SNP gesture politics isn't going to end children's obsession with Snapchat and TikTok –  Aidan Smith

Enforcing a smartphone ban in schools will be a tough, perhaps even impossible, job

Sometimes it’s one of his Hot Wheels cars. Other times a rubber dinosaur. Maybe if he’s had a restless night it will be his fluffy sloth. But yesterday morning, as happens more and more now, our six-year-old son came down for breakfast clutching his phone.

Hang on, don’t report me to Childline, it’s not a smartphone or even a thickophone, but an old phone-shaped device his big brother used to play games and which no longer works. But he’s getting ready for the day when he can be just like all his siblings and wield one of those slim, sexy, dastardly childhood-ruiners.

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What, you still think this is bad parenting? Then you’re probably not a parent yourself. You try and stop the tide, the tsunami. The genie is out of the bottle, the horse has bolted and, sprite and nag, they’re waving their smartphones in outright defiance, too.

Both Westminster and Holyrood are cracking down on smartphones and banning their use in schools (Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Images)Both Westminster and Holyrood are cracking down on smartphones and banning their use in schools (Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Images)
Both Westminster and Holyrood are cracking down on smartphones and banning their use in schools (Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Images)

Our only hope, it seems, is if 21st-century life turns out to be a Christopher Nolan movie like Memento or a Martin Amis novel like Time’s Arrow and is unfolding back to front. Some day soon we will emerge into a bright, sunny, tech-regressive tomorrow or rather yesterday when children will be happily amusing themselves with marbles and hula-hoops and actually leaving their bedrooms to be outside in the fresh air and then having tea on whatever it was we used for cooking, pre-air fryers, before sitting down as a family to watch TV together.

Remember that blissful Covid era? Obviously it wasn’t blissful, far from it, apart from in just those moments when it was like we were recreating a classic cover of Radio Times: mum and dad on the settee, minus knitting and pipe, but with all the children present and sprawled on the carpet. And then the lockdowns ended and Schitt’s Creek and Modern Family ended and then, if your modern family is anything like mine, the kids went back to their rooms and their phones.

So what now? Thank goodness for the government, we can always depend on them. Westminster is outlawing smartphones in schools and Tory Education Secretary Gillian Keegan’s crackdown is to be followed by imminent new powers from Holyrood for Scotland’s head teachers to ban them in our classrooms.

All very laudable, but aren’t they banned already? A snap poll during yesterday’s snap, crackle and pop confirmed that phones aren’t allowed during lessons in the three state schools – two secondary, one primary – our kids attend. The rules are strictly enforced for the older three. “If you’re caught looking at your phone, it gets taken away,” confirmed Daughter No 1, “and not just for that lesson. One girl had it removed in French, second period, and didn’t get it back until the end of the day.”

The six-year-old, listening intently, tried to join in the debate by claiming that one of his P1 chums was already in possession of his own smartphone at this tender age. Had he actually seen it? “Not yet, but he promises to show it to us this week.” At this, my mind went back to my old playground and the boasts about Johnny Seven ownership, when all requests for a playdate so I might have the opportunity just to glimpse the ultimate toy gun were refused.

This is gesture politics, isn’t it? Election-year politics and stating-the-bleedin’-obvious politics. Of course pupils shouldn’t be Snapchatting and TikToking but this has been school policy throughout the many previous attempts by Westminster to get to grips with the problem, in 2015, 2018 and 2021.

The difference now is that this isn’t just about the effects of excessive social media use on children’s ability to learn – affecting cognition, attention span and mental health – but the tragedies of Brianna Ghey and Molly Russell. The teenagers’ grieving parents are uniting in demands for smartphones to have restricted access for under-16s to prevent exposure to harmful content.

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Politicians, when their stock is so low and public emotion is running high, just as it was last month with outrage at the plight of the postmasters, have to be seen to be doing something, indeed anything. The problem isn’t smartphones as such, but the vile content you can find on them.

But who, ultimately, is going to enforce the ban? I mean beyond the head teachers and their staff who have more than enough to do as it is. Are private security firms in high-vis as reluctant to get involved – often understandably – as the ones at football matches?

It would be a tough job and maybe an impossible one. SNP Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth would probably feel it is beyond her. On TV’s The Sunday Show she astonished her inquisitor and many watching by admitting she had not read a report into violence in schools, revealing that a third of 800 teachers surveyed in Aberdeen had been attacked in their classrooms. That’s on a level with the dog eating the homework.

But let’s stop getting at the kids for being addicted to their phones. You, sir, are you setting a good example? I know I’m not, and the fact I’m not glued to mine quite as much as my wife is no plea in mitigation. Daughter No 2 complained yesterday: “We can’t use our phones but sometimes we see the teachers sneaking a peek at theirs.”

And look at the political classes. Full scroll mode immediately after they’ve sat back down in the Commons, presumably to find out how quickly their mighty words are trending. Whatsapping each other with misogynistic abuse. Viewing porn and claiming, woops, they’d really been trying to check out tractors.

Must do better. We all can. Which is why I’ve hidden the six-year-old’s wannabe smartphone. And don’t go calling Childline about that either.



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