October 4, 2023 - 7:00am

It is good to see that the Government has this week proposed banning mobile phones from classrooms — guidance that, if implemented, will rightly earn Education Secretary Gillian Keegan more respect.

To me, though, it’s a bit like applauding a ban on loudspeakers in libraries: it’s so darn obvious that it’s bizarre it’s taken this long.

In the wake of good news like this it’s tempting to relax and feel that things are moving in the right direction. Yet now is the time to push harder. Smartphones need to be cracked down on outside the classroom as well as inside.

It is no good ensuring that school is a phone-free haven if the children then grab their mobiles the minute they leave the building at 4pm, spending the next eight hours frantically scrolling and Snapchatting. Any gain made during the school day will instantly dissolve at its close. 

What’s more, the addictive nature of smartphones means that many children will spend the school day anxiously fretting about when they can have their phones back — pity the teacher trying to discuss redemption and damnation in Doctor Faustus when all his pupils are twitching for TikTok like a den of crack addicts.

In my work as patron of a charity which helps to keep children from tough homes in school and in learning, I’ve spoken to countless teenagers all over the country. When I get the chance, I always ask them how they’d cope without social media, were it made illegal. Not one has said that they would miss it. In fact, they all express some form of humorous, “if only” wistfulness about the idea. 

But as things stand they can’t give it up —  it’s how they communicate with their peers and they are endearingly candid about their addiction. There’s a similar whiff to the opioid crisis in America: social media was presented to us all as a positive connecting force when it’s actually divisive, isolating and deeply damaging. 

Nearly £100 million has been forked out by the Government in the last two years on soaring mental health needs for school pupils. Over a million British children per year are referred to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, many of whom present with severe depression, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders and suicidal behaviour. Half a million of those are still on waiting lists.

If teenagers used brick phones only capable of calling and texting — instead of portals to time-wasting, cyber-bullying, self-harm chatrooms, pro-anorexia forums and terrifyingly violent porn — the Government could no doubt save itself many more imminent millions. Without a smartphone I do not think it far-fetched to bet that the vast majority of children would be calmer, happier, healthier, better-rested and more able to focus at school.

The neurological dangers of smart devices are less talked about than the emotional and mental risks. In a nutshell, the rapid-fire stimulation of digital life wrecks a child’s ability to concentrate for a sustained period of time — probably the key factor leading to academic success.

So Gillian, if we’re serious about improving a child’s educational potential we need more, please. An overhaul of digital learning in which devices are programmed solely for educational use and their classroom usage vastly decreased — book, paper and pen have now been found to be far more effective learning tools than digital learning platforms (just have a look at the kind of schools to which Big Tech workers send their kids). And a general ban of smartphones and social media for those under the age of 16. Only if we take these braver steps will we watch those young birds soar.

Sophie Winkleman is an actress and patron of School-Home Support, the Big Issue, AgeUK, the Children’s Surgery Foundation and CURE.org