Social media: Is a ban the best idea?

With mental health and behavioural problems driven by social media use, Robyn Quick explores whether a ban will truly solve these issues.

The school bus or the drive to school is more often than not a journey bathed in white artificial light. Going on a mobile phone or a tablet are one of the ways many children in the UK spend their time.

The worry for many people in education is that this screen time is continuing into school grounds, and is disrupting the learning of young people. As well as this, the risk of cyberbullying is heightened by children having electronic devices easily available during the school day.

The Department for Education (DfE) estimated that by the age of 12, 97 per cent of children own a mobile phone.

With mobile phones inevitably comes social media, which many say has a negative effect on young people’s minds and mental health.

According to Ofcom, parents of 3-17-year-olds were concerned about how some content could harm or negatively influence their children.

Seven in ten parents were concerned about their child seeing content online that would encourage them to harm themselves.

Six in ten were worried about the possibility of their child being influenced by extreme views online, whether political, social or religious.

Martina Larkin, CEO of Project Liberty, an international organisation focused on a responsible approach to technology access, said: “We are facing a youth mental health crisis related to the use of social media.

She said: “Most families, educators and young people themselves know the challenges of social media, but are left with few avenues to and support to address it.”

Organisations such as Project Liberty have even taken matters into their own hands and introduced projects to make sure children are using mobile phones and technology safely. They are part of “Safe Tech, Safe Kids,” which is a team of organisations, activists, and technologists who aim to empower young people to be aware of how addictive social media can be.

This is not to say that using technology at school does not have benefits. For example, the same report from Ofcom suggested there were a variety of positives to be gained from integrating technology into education.

In 2022, over 80 per cent of young people aged 12 to 17 said that being online had helped them with school and homework. Almost seven in 10 (68 per cent) said it had helped to build and maintain friendships, and around half of young people use the internet to find out about the news.

However, it is important to strike the balance between a healthy and addictive relationship with social media and online content.

So, what is the government doing about it?

The government has introduced guidance into schools on how to monitor mobile phones at school, but there are no legal requirements at the moment.

The new guidance introduced in February this year said that schools should prohibit the use of mobile phones during the school day, but they will have autonomy on how to do this. How strictly individual schools stick to these guidelines is up to them.

Some may allow phones to be brought onto the premises but not to be used during school hours, including at breaktime. This could mean that schools have a secure cubby for students to put their phones, or more of a loose policy where children are trusted to keep their phones off and away. This brings England in line with other countries who have put in place similar rules, including France, Italy and Portugal.

Can schools and parents ban social media?

There has been an increase in calls to more heavily monitor social media for under-16s, especially after the murder of teenager Brianna Ghey.

Ghey was 16 years old when she was killed by two teens. Before the murder, the 15-year-old attackers had been using social media and the internet extensively to research serial killers and torture.

It is hard to ignore that if the killers had not been exposed to such graphic content at an early age, they may have been less likely to take Ghey’s life.

One solution to the problem came at the end of 2023 with the enforcement of the Online Safety Act, which encourages companies to take a tougher approach to enforcing minimum age limits for creating social media accounts, which are widely flouted.

It contains a range of measures intended to improve online safety in the UK, including duties on internet platforms about having systems and processes in place to manage harmful content on their sites, including illegal content.

Ofcom estimates that almost a third of eight to 11 year olds have a TikTok account. However, TikTok says in their policy statement that users must be at least 13 years-old to have an account.

Pamela B. Rutledge of Psychology Today said that outright banning social media and phones is “unrealistic” as it cuts children off from their primary source of communication. Instead, she proposes setting clear rules in school settings for when social media and mobile phones can be used. 

Schools across the world are taking different approaches regarding smartphone use in schools. Unesco found that almost one in four countries have banned smartphones in schools in laws or policies including Côte d’Ivoire and Italy.

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