That really was the question of last term, and the School’s decision not to allow the Fourth Form to have mobile phones and restrict their use in the Lower Fifth has had much coverage.
I can remember clearly when Dr Saxel shared in one of our morning meetings that she was coming to the conclusion that we needed to do something radical around mobile phone usage and that the policy we should adopt was not to allow them at all for the Fourth Form and probably not the Lower Fifth. The plan was to research, discuss and then to make a decision by the end of the summer term.
To be perfectly honest, the idea of a ban, prohibition, restriction, whatever you like to call it, goes against all my educational instincts. After all, we cannot turn back the technological clock and we have to prepare our children for the world in which they live. Better to educate on proper use of technology than just impose a ban. I remembered a very insightful comment from a 10 year-old on one of our Holistic Review Days as we debated this very issue: ‘even a candle was new mobile technology once.’
So what was so compelling in the arguments that were presented that made us decide that this was right for Cranleigh?
For me, the over-riding concern has always been whether the pastoral reasons for any form of restriction outweighed the potential benefits. Some research is showing that the teenage brain is being affected and there is plenty of evidence to show that the cognitive function of the teenage brain is less developed and that teenagers tend to make rash or rushed decisions which can be harmful. Even in a school such as Cranleigh where we have the time for great friendships to develop, the amount of time that pupils were spending on social media was having a detrimental effect on relationships and on work habits. All schools and families are fighting a constant battle to safeguard children from exposure to harm and from leaving the wrong kind of footprint on their digital carpets. 4G renders all filters next to useless.
Of course there are many beneficial things about smartphone technology and social media but the smartphone was not invented for children and the technology has run faster than our ability to check its appropriateness or monitor its effects. For a child, where once a mobile phone was just that – a telephone that fitted in a bag that also sent short messages that saved many a long wait in a playground, an aid to independence on the road to adulthood, it has a become route to full immersion in that world.
Alcohol, gambling, smoking, non-prescription drugs, pornography were invented by adults for adults. We are very clear as a society about safe boundaries for sex. We do not give our children the keys to the car until they are 17 and have passed a test. Should we therefore be giving our children access to this world before they are ready to make good choices?
For Cranleigh, the decision also came at the same time as the introduction of iPads. Two of the many reasons we decided against a ‘bring-your-own-device’ policy was so that we could ensure all students had the same apps and the same device to ensure smoother teaching and learning experiences and because the school could choose, filter, monitor the apps that were being used and switch off the WiFi when it is time for sleep! We could teach the pupils how to drive technology safely away from the temptation of constant use and the bends and bumps of a road for which they were not yet ready.
And why was a complete ban the answer? Other schools are taking a different approach and each school must make its own decision. For us, it was about clarity: remove the grey and we send a clearer message for all pupils and all parents. This is what we believe is right pastorally for Cranleighans at this time, not just right some of the time. Rather like a uniform, it is equally illiberal!
Mike Wiking, the author of a ‘Little Book of Lykke’, gives examples from around the world about what makes people happy. He writes about togetherness and community, about eating together and talking together – what boarding schools should be all about. He also warns that one of the threats to happiness is constantly comparing ourselves to another. We are not as sculpted as the model on the internet, we have not got as many friends or people do not ‘like’ our photograph, or we feel we have to ‘send nudes’ to be accepted.
When I speak to prospective parents at our small groups meeting, I stress how important it is for children to be children and enjoy their childhood. What we want above all else is for pupils to be happy in their skin; learn how to steer the world of relationships; enjoy a conversation; share news face to face, smile to smile or tear to shoulder; kick a ball or jam together in a band; and, to be practical, get on with their work and go to bed to sleep. We think the Fourth Form have a better chance of doing this without the distraction of the smartphone and hopefully better equipped to use it wisely when they do.
For more discussion on the matter, put our Technology and Teenage Mental Health Conference on March 8th in your diary. Details published soon.