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Wednesday 29 November 2023 Dublin: 2°C
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Parenting 'We can't block technology for our kids - that ship has sailed'

Margaret Lynch looks at the government’s backing of schools wishing to ban smartphones and wonders if it’s a red herring.

EDUCATION MINISTER, NORMA Foley, has recently announced her intention to support schools in the banning of smartphones. It’s a far cry from the government actually banning phones, just a nod of support to the schools interested in trying this out. 

As a parent of both teen and tween children, I must have missed the announcement earlier that phones were allowed? In our experience, all schools have been very clear that phones are absolutely not to be taken out within the classroom, and for good reason too. I have never met a parent who disagreed with this measure.

What I do disagree with, however, is the never-ending argument that phones are the cause of all societal problems.

Making changes

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has also backed the idea, saying that “mobile phone use causes immense damage to young people”. This is utterly ridiculous. A phone is just a phone. It is a tool for the person using it. The phones don’t take it upon themselves to send mean or hurtful messages. Phones aren’t the problem, and when used correctly they provide an additional security measure for busy families.

Unsupervised access to the internet is causing damage to young people. Unrealistic lives and beauty standards, fabricated by influencers and accepted as the norm are causing immense damage to young people. Children who have free roam to voice every opinion on group chats, or who haven’t been taught about the power of their words, are all things that are causing damage.

CyberSafeKids released research last week saying that cyberbullying is a significant issue for children and young people. This has been added to the reasons for not giving them phones until they are in secondary school, which is perfect because obviously, bullying doesn’t happen after primary school. It also ignores the fact that bullies likely share a classroom with the kids that they are picking on, or walk home in the same direction. They don’t need phones to cause the hurt that they do.

Bullying is a serious issue which can have tragic consequences, and instead of banning phones, we should address the root causes of bullying. Why do we have so many children who are intent on causing hurt to others? We could also extend more meaningful initiatives like the free counselling service for primary school children, bringing it to all counties. Currently, only seven counties in Ireland have access to this service.

The CyberSafeKids survey also revealed the shocking figures that 93% of eight to 12-year-olds own a smart device. This information was revealed as if eight-year-olds are using their devices to smuggle funds into offshore bank accounts. More likely they inherited a cracked screen, half-dead phone to watch strangers play Minecraft on YouTube. Each family should decide when they are ready to introduce phones to their children. It’s OK if your eight-year-old has a phone. If they use that phone to cause hurt then you have an opportunity to address an issue that already existed.

Not the only challenge

Cyberbullying is always discussed in terms of children. We never address the amount of adults who write shockingly nasty things online. Things that they would never say in person. It is not just children who don’t know how to conduct themselves online, or who aren’t aware of the damage of their words. If we don’t teach the younger generations to do better, we will continue the cycle.

Child Psychologist, Colman Noctor, raises an excellent point about how a technology-free world no longer exists, and that we now need to consider ways to protect children in the world that they currently inhabit. This really hits the nail on the head. We can’t block technology, that ship has sailed. Their generation has moved their existence to an online forum. When we prevent our kids from taking part, we cause a social isolation that will also have repercussions.

But look, we do have alternatives here. If we really want to do something to better this next generation there are a lot of options. We could introduce digital and media literacy as a subject from primary school and spend time teaching them (and us) how to conduct ourselves online. We can show them how to keep themselves, and the people around them safe.

We can listen to them, and to their issues. Stephen Donnelly highlighted the harmful impacts of inappropriate exposure to online content on youth mental health. This can include anxiety and stress, depression, self-harm, disordered eating and suicidal ideation. These issues exist outside of phones, and unfortunately, we can’t avoid them by skipping phones.

The Junior and Leaving Certs are a major source of stress, anxiety and depression for our teens. It is hard to believe that we allow generation after generation to have their entire future determined by one exam. The 2023 Study Clix Survey revealed that 74% of students noted school stress as the biggest concern in their lives, and 64% said they had given up sports or an enjoyable pastime to spend more time doing schoolwork. If they were giving up sports and hobbies to spend more time on their phones we would be outraged.

Clearly, developing skills for an increasingly online world is terrible, but ditching their interests to learn maths that they will never use outside of the classroom, well that just makes sense.

Around 75% of respondents noted extreme stress as a result of the leaving cert, and just over half said they developed mental or physical health issues as a result of it. Furthermore, in the same survey, 1 in 8 students said that their house is now colder, as a result of the cost-of-living crisis and 64% noted a worry about the cost of living. The students themselves are trying to tell us what they are struggling with, and where they need help.

Earlier this year, children wrote to Norma Foley to ask for a homework ban in schools, noting the amount of time each evening taken up by homework, and the effects this was having on them. Unfortunately, many received responses (ironically sent by email) to say that the state had no power to get involved in homework policy. However, this does help explain why it was easier for the minister to ban something that was already banned in schools.

In fact, it is easier overall to blame phones for all the issues facing the younger generations, instead of actually addressing any of the real issues. We can take this idea as far as it will go, maybe ban the sale of smartphones for children under 18? Although given the length of time it has taken to get vapes banned for kids, this might not be the most efficient strategy.

This next generation is experiencing different issues than a lot of us grew up with, and the standard struggles feel hugely inflated. They require a different parenting style than many of us are used to. We have the opportunity to guide them, while they still want our opinions, and to give them the tools they need to navigate the digital world.

Technology continues to take massive leaps forward in shaping society and how we function. Ignoring it, demonising it, and not teaching younger generations how to use it appropriately won’t serve anyone. If we continue to blame phones for everything, then we miss opportunities to fix actual problems.

Margaret Lynch is a busy, working mum of two, living in Kildare and wondering if Adulthood is really for her.