top of page

I banned mobile phones in my school seven years ago – Gavin Williamson is right to do it nationally

When you break down the addictive, psychological dopamine networks of cocaine, they are similar in initial effect to those of mobile phones. We ban addictive substances in schools – we should therefore ban addictive technologies too.

‘We’ll only widen the learning gap if we continue to allow Facebook, SnapChat and Whatsapp to compete against maths, physics and biology for the precious attention of our students’ (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Gavin Williamson’s announcement calling for a ban on phones in the classroom has pitted the Education Secretary against many headteachers. Many claim that this policy is a red herring and that the government should be focussing on catching up on the lost learning from lockdown instead.

As an ex-headteacher, I completely disagree – banning mobile phones in the classroom is crucial if we want to ensure our students can apply maximum focus to their education without being distracted by one of the most addictive technologies of our era. That’s why I banned them in my school seven years ago.

Mobile phones, and the social media and gaming apps they host, have no place in the classroom, unless their use is guided by a teacher. Here’s why…

Jane Lunnon, headteacher of Alleyn’s School, Dulwich, London, has likened phones to crack cocaine. This may sound like hyperbole but when you break down the addictive, psychological dopamine networks of the two, they really aren’t that different in initial effect.

Crack gets its addictive quality from activating the release of large amounts of dopamine through the brain in a very short space of time. When that rush wears off, the race to find that “high” is on. We crave a return to that flooding of dopamine.

Social media “rewards” can do the exact same thing. The gratification, and resulting dopamine, one gets from any form of “digital appreciation” – a like or a comment – is short but intense and leaves you desperate for more.

In fact, a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions has established that mobile phone addiction, and more specifically social media addiction, not only wastes countless hours but can affect decision-making abilities and make people likely to engage in “risky behaviours”.

What’s more, parents agree. A survey in 2016 by US researchers Common Sense Media found that 59 per cent of parents believe their children to be addicted to their mobile devices and I have no doubt that this figure is higher as a result of lockdown.

We actively ban any form of addictive substance in schools for obvious reasons. It follows that we should therefore ban addictive technologies too.

Some academics have rallied against the measures, saying that there is not enough evidence to support a mobile phones ban. This begs two questions: which part of the mobile phone are you banning (making calls doesn’t have the same dopamine release) but social media use does and how much evidence do you need? We know that studies from both Spain and Norway have found that mobile phone bans can improve educational outcomes.

A 2015 study in the UK, Ill Communication: Technology, distraction & student performance, in the journal Labour Economics, found 16-year-olds in schools with bans benefited from a 6.4 per cent improvement in their exams from average results. I doubt this is pure coincidence.

But beyond the research, I know first-hand that technology in the hands of a teacher can be a powerful tool. However, technology in the hands of the student, without the guidance of a teacher, can be an even more powerful distraction. I’ve focussed on social media but the growing research on phone-based gambling and porn is far more troubling.

Neuroscience tells us that attention is a limited resource that is depleted when it is fragmented. Social media’s whole business model relies on competing for our attention with fragmented pieces of information. It really shouldn’t be this hard for us to connect the dots.

Think about how you feel when you’re in the middle of a conversation with someone whilst they check their phone. In my experience, nine times out of 10 they will ask you to repeat yourself. When this occurs repeatedly throughout the school day, the compounded missed learning that occurs is incalculable. Especially as it’s estimated that a distraction from a concentrated state can take up to eight minutes to redress and return to that concentrated state.

We need to ensure our teachers can close the learning gap. However, we’ll only widen the gap if we continue to allow Facebook, SnapChat and Whatsapp to compete against maths, physics and biology for the precious attention of our students.

We also cannot ignore how social media sites are vectors for bullying. My experience as a headteacher tells me that children can be both incredibly kind to each other but incredibly cruel too. It should come as no surprise that the Office for National Statistics found at least one five children suffered at least one form of online bullying last year and 72 per cent of these suffered some or all of this bullying at school.

Lockdown has been hard on pupils’ mental health; we shouldn’t allow the return to school to contribute to that.

I understand that many parents will be concerned about contacting their children after school hours. That’s why simply allowing phones to be kept in a safe place throughout the school day is a great solution. We implemented this when I was a headteacher and it kept the teachers, parents and (largely) the students happy.

I similarly appreciate that phones have been a social lifeline throughout lockdown. However, as we attempt to return to normal, we need to reintroduce children to real conversation, real play and physical interaction.

If we continue to allow phones in schools, students will continue to assume that phones mean friendship, socialising and connection. Of course, in reality, phones offer merely a version of these things and at best are an insufficient replacement.

Re-introducing our students to a real social life means weaning them off the social life-support that phones have been over lockdown.

Digital technologies can be an effective learning aid when used in a structured, teacher-guided fashion – but the jury is out on the unstructured use of social media sites during the school day. My view is it is bad for the development of our young learners who have already lost so much of their education over lockdown. Gavin Williamson’s bold new measures will help to prove that, once and for all.

Leon Hady is the founder of Guide Education


bottom of page