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Top UK boarding school, Eton College, requests students hand over their mobile phones in the evenings

Mobile devices and children, Eton College - UK Study Centre blog, education in the UK
25 June 2018

This month, a new policy has been introduced by Eton's headmaster to combat student sleep deprivation and social media anxiety due to the overuse of smart phone devices – but will it work?

Eton remains one of the UK’s leading boarding schools for boys. This month, a new policy has been introduced by the headmaster to combat student sleep deprivation and social media anxiety due to the overuse of smart phone devices – but will it work?

The dangers of social media and smart phones in schools is a long-standing issue. In boarding schools particularly, it poses a difficult dilemma – whilst students are living away from home, can you really take away the one device that allows them to connect with family in the outside world? Or do you allow students 24-hour access to smart devices that can be harmful when used irresponsibly? Simon Henderson, the current headmaster at Eton College, has decided to take matters into his own hands by introducing a new policy to combat this issue. All boys in Y9 are to hand in all electronic devices to staff at 9.30pm and pick them up the next morning at 7.45am. His intention is to reduce the amount of screen time pupils are exposed to and improve the quality of their sleep during term time.

You would assume that from a student’s perspective, the new rules could prove disastrous, but in fact it has been welcomed with open arms. Speaking at a Girls’ Day School Trust conference, Henderson said “We thought there was going to be outrage among the boys but actually they really welcomed it.” So why might this be? Are students now so fed up with the pressures of social media that they are turning against it? “We expected boys to complain, but most say that they welcome it as they appreciate having the break and not feeling the social pressure to read and reply to messages instantly. They think it improves their sleep.”

So, should other boarding schools adopt a similar approach and discourage the use of mobile phones during recreational time? It would make sense given that there is prevalent concern about the impact social media is having on young people’s mental health in the UK. According to Ofcom, the government-approved authority, 83% of 12- to 15-year-olds have a smartphone and half of all children have a social media profile by age 12 – worrying figures to say the least. Schools in the UK are constantly determining the appropriate balance between 21st century ideals and safeguarding for their students.

Boarding schools tend to lead in the discouragement of smart phone devices during ‘free time’. According to Cranleigh School headmaster, Martin Reader, boarding school children dominate the world of work today because they did not spend time in their bedrooms in front of screens, instead they were taking part in the arts, sports or other extracurricular activities. At the Boarding School Association’s annual conference in Brighton this year, he said:

“When people question why our schools dominate the nations’ sports, creative and performing arts, the professions and politics, it is because they have had time to do those things and time with experts to coach them.

“Why sit in a car or on a train or a bus for 45 minutes twice a day, or in a bedroom by yourself hunched over homework or a screen?

“You could be spending those hours rehearsing for a play, having a band practice, spending more time mastering your musical instrument or your goal shooting technique, spending more hours perfecting that painting, debating or discussing politics or science or history – whatever is your passion.”

Mr Reader believes boarding school pupils spend less time “hunched” over a screen at home, they are instead out exploring physically and mentally stimulating activities that better them as people, and as he believes, ultimately make them more employable. Similarly to Henderson, Mr Reader believes “real face-to-face, social time” at boarding school is better than the “virtual socializing” day pupils at other schools are used to. In light of this, he has banned all mobile phones for pupils aged 13 to 14 as they are “not mature enough” for the technology.

“We used to get an incident a week of something unpleasant for that age group but now we've had nothing,” he said.

“We restrict alcohol and cigarettes as a society because they are addictive so why not restrict something as addictive as a mobile phone.”

Both Henderson and Reader lead two of the most high-profile boarding schools in the country, so will other schools follow suit and crack down on the misuse of mobile phones? In the UK, whilst teachers have the legal right to confiscate items from pupils, there is no government policy about mobile phone use and individual schools set their own guidelines on the issue. Some schools are getting it right though. Internal policies are being put in place at lots of schools across the UK to cover all aspects of going ‘online’. Students are being educated on how cyberbullying is harmful, indecent web content is inappropriate and other such topics. New e-safety staff are being introduced and schools are hiring dedicated specialists to protect students when using the internet.

Recently, the London School of Economics has conducted research to show that banning mobile phones in schools will give students an extra week's education over the course of an academic year. The research looked at schools in four different English cities and the results showed student test scores increased by more than 6% in those that banned mobile phone devices. But is the answer to educate students in the use of mobile phones, instead of taking them away? Sir David Bell, the vice-chancellor of Reading University, believes there are upsides to the effects of social media. He said it was an opportunity for youngsters to «connect up» and build wider friendship groups.

Some would suggest that education needs to adapt in order to keep up with 21st century ideals. Schools should be educating on the positive impact social media and connecting via smart phones can have, rather than fight against the ownership of such devices. Sir David did acknowledge there are aspects to social media that leave some students vulnerable, «We've had some students excluded very quickly by horrible social media traffic.» He went on to say that it’s vital to educate young people in identifying “the right sort of community" to be a part of.

It is common for young people today to face the pressures of social media. There are various reasons why it can have a harmful impact on their lives. Social media platforms can become a child’s first priority over their school work, family and physical activities. It can become all-encompassing and almost an ‘obsession’ to keep up-to-date with what their friends are doing online. Dangers of social media include false portrayal, cyberbullying and image pressure. Profiles on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are not accurate depictions of people’s lives, they can mislead children into unrealistic expectations; leading to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. The ease of access to such platforms via smartphones has increased dramatically over the years and it is the responsibility of both parents and schools to educate children in the correct way to use social media.

Having been guardians for international students for the past 12 years, UK Study Centre has come across the issue of misusing the internet and mobile devices numerous times. Our students in boarding schools have had their devices confiscated as a means of punishment, mostly laptops with video games installed on them (we should admit this had been used as a last resort). In some cases, parents asked us to arrange for device confiscation or limited use of it. In contrast, some parents have asked us to contact schools and remind their children to use the phones and to get in touch more often. In more complex situations, we have been asked to deal with indecent image distribution and other such violations of using technology.

All situations are different, but it is a divisive issue that many schools face. Taking away mobile phone devices has been proven to improve sleep, mental health and even student test scores. Time will tell if other schools follow in the footsteps of Eton and Cranleigh, but for now the results appear effective and if schools aren’t going to take mobile phones away, they need to educate their pupils in using such devices responsibly.

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