Don't ban children from using smartphones - teach them to use them responsibly

The techno panic about children and phones is unnecessary - this is an education issue.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

There’s a lot of debate in the UK about the next generation and their use of technology. France has banned smartphones in schools, and now philosopher Julian Baggini is arguing in The Guardian that we should ban children from using smartphones completely:

If we had a new gadget and we knew it was very dangerous for children, we would never allow companies to sell it to them. So why should it be any different with an old gadget whose harms have only recently become apparent?

Let’s have a look at those “harms” shall we?

Perhaps the most persuasive evidence yet is a paper published last month in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, based on a study of more than half a million American adolescents over five years. A team led by the psychology professor Jean M Twenge found that kids who used their smartphones for three hours or more a day were one-third more likely to feel hopeless or consider suicide, rising to nearly half of those who used such devices for five or more hours a day.

Three hours a day? Five hours a day?

Those are insane usage levels. What the author has identified is not a problem with technology, it’s a problem with education. If we’re letting children use smartphones for three hours a day, that’s a failure both of parenting and of general education into appropriate and useful use of a device.

To give you an example: the exact same argument could be made for banning children from watching TV:

Previous studies have shown that for each additional hour of television watched in childhood, the odds of developing symptoms of depression increase by 8 percent and the odds of being convicted of a crime increase by 27 percent. And other findings suggest that for every two hours watched in one’s youth, the odds of developing type 2 diabetes increase by 20 percent.

But we haven’t done that – we’ve made extended TV binges in the very young unacceptable.

This is just techno panic. Or, to put it another way:

It’s a classic example of blaming the tech for the behaviour. Let’s reverse our thinking on this. Schools are a perfect place to teach appropriate use of phone – how to use them in context. Students could use them for research tasks, but get punished for messaging when they should be listening for example, in exactly the same way they are for talking or passing notes.

Tech – and mobile tech – is a critical part of our future information infrastructure. Denying our children the opportunity to learn from it is just futile and short-sighted.

If you want a more positive take on children and their use of technology, here’s an excellent talk by Pamela Pavliscak about Gen Z at NEXT17 in Hamburg:


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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.