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2nd March 2024

The kids aren’t alright: Sunak’s school phone ban won’t stop bigotry, even a bit

Sunak’s ban on phones in secondary school is doing little to solve the problem, and more to make it worse

In a weak attempt to attack anti-social behaviour and educator’s increased concerns about bullying in secondary schools, Rishi Sunak has done the obvious; instated new guidelines banning phones in schools.

I’m not anti-phone bans – my secondary school actually had a blanket phone ban at all times. We could bring them to school as long as they were on silent and stayed in our bags. Overall this worked, making sure kids weren’t distracted from learning by having them out in lessons. On rare occasions we used them for in-lesson activities (anyone remember Kahoot?) or to listen to music in silent art lessons. I think there needs to be logical expectations and a wider ranger of tactics to actually root out the issues caused by unfiltered internet access at a young age.

I vividly remember one incident where my phone was confiscated during lunch (quite literally snatched out of my hand, mid-text). Often I used my phone during break times to keep my parents updated on my chronic condition. After the upset and embarrassment of being publicly berated by a senior teacher, it was cleared up after an explanation of the situation.

Whilst I was an avid goody two shoes in school, this was the one rule I regularly broke. The humiliation of having my phone grabbed off me and trying to explain the situation was horrible – it shouldn’t become the norm, especially for children with long-term complications or disabilities. It seems like the kind of reasonable exception which the guidance completely ignores.

Parents, in certain circumstances with legitimate reasons, should be allowed to opt out of some of the stricter parts of these new suggestions (if their kids’ school opts in). A quick text during break or lunch harms no one whilst reassuring both concerned parents and children.

As well as the strict blanket rules of this new guidance, I also disagree with the advice that phones should not be allowed at all on school campuses. Whilst phones are much more of a normality now than when I was in school, phones have been and always will be a safety device. It gets dark as early as 4 in the afternoon and children shouldn’t have to walk home in the dark without a phone to contact anyone. If a school opts in with this part of the guidance it legitimately puts children in danger. Having phones off in bags means they can be used outside of school grounds when needed, for their intended purpose of keeping in touch.

The new guidance also allows students to be searched and have phones confiscated by the school. Taking a phone away in plain sight or being disruptive is one thing but ‘stop-and-search’-esque tactics should be an obvious red flag.

‘Stop-and-search’ has been heavily criticised and if this policy has negative connotations in the general population, it shouldn’t be used against vulnerable children. It gives those in powerful positions in schools the chance to single out children in front of their peers – a form of public humiliation – as well as risk engaging in profiling due to a lack of proper oversight.

Schools are already places of high emotion and frequent bullying. Engaging in practices that might pick on individuals or cause public embarrassment isn’t going to help with the rampant issues of school absences and increasing anti-social behaviour.

I do understand that this has been pushed by some parents but I don’t believe banning phones in schools will help with the deep-rooted growth of political radicalisation of children online. I remember (from my own school days) people sneaking out phones at lunch to show each other memes or new music. It was harmless then but has the potential to be more insidious now as children have easier access to more extreme content. Banning phones even at breaks may help the stop of sharing extreme views during the day – but kids can just go home and share the same things.

My younger sister is now at the same secondary school I attended, with the same rules as when I was there. She told me that these rules have stood the test of time. The regulations of no-phones in class but allowing in bags seems to be the most productive system. 

But what she did point out was the worrying amount of knowledge boys had on right-wing conspiracies and offensive content. ‘Edgy-humour’ was often used by boys when I was in school but it seems to have been dialled up to an extreme levels. My sister tells stories of boys in her year group saying they aspire to be like Andrew Tate, with some students telling female teachers they wouldn’t participate in class as they don’t think women should be teachers.

Over Christmas I heard her horrific accounts of her classmates saying they wanted to imitate Mason Greenwood and Jimmy Saville. These comments were shocking, even compared to what I heard from boys in school growing up. This indicates that unlimited online access and phones are problematic but it seems unlikely that school bans are going to attack the root cause of the issues we are seeing.

We need to focus on creating a safe school space for gender-diverse students to curb the issue of increasingly badly attendance. No wonder students don’t want to sit in lessons where their peers shout out misogynistic abuse.

Secondly, we need to hold tech corporations responsible for monitoring their social media networks and encourage more parents to install content blockers. Algorithms tend to target teenage boys, often through gaming content, with increasingly harmful misogynistic or discriminatory content. Tiktok, Youtube, Instagram and Twitter are all rife with it. Impressionable kids having access to content by the likes of Andrew Tate – without the proper understanding of the consequences of the kinds of things he says – start with making insults in classrooms acceptable. This could have dire consequences in the future. 

Parents are under more stress than ever with the rise of the internet age, but this doesn’t absolve them from teaching important lessons to children. Both schools and parents have a role in teaching; especially as educators are now dissuaded from sharing their own political opinions with students. 

If you give your child access to the internet it is part of the duty of care to educate your children on disinformation and radicalisation. We can’t keep complaining about how terrible screens are for us or how we should all reduce screentime and then plant a young, impressionable child in front of an iPad as soon as they are old enough to hold one. 

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