Children and smartphones

A large body of research has linked the amount of ‘screen time’ such as watching television, playing computer games, and using smartphone apps with negative outcomes for children of all ages. In a school context, using smartphones can be extremely distracting for both pupils and their teachers.

The Department for Education has published new guidance which backs head teachers in banning mobile phone use throughout the school day, including at break times, to tackle disruptive behaviour and online bullying while boosting attention during lessons. This is supporting the wider work the Government is doing to raise standards in schools by increasing students’ focus and reducing distractions. The new guidance says that schools should prohibit the use of mobile phones, but they will have autonomy on how to do this. Schools will be supported to prohibit mobile phone use with examples of different approaches including banning phones from the school premises, handing in phones on arrival at school, and keeping phones securely locked away at school.  The move brings England in line with other countries that have already implemented a ban, including France, Italy and Portugal. It follows warnings from the United Nations on the risks of smartphones in schools and government data that found around a third of secondary school pupils reported mobile phones being used when they were not supposed to in most, or all, lessons.   

Furthermore, the online world should not be a refuge for encouraging self-harm or anti-social behaviour, and the Government is committed to ensuring that there are sufficient protections for children of all ages online. The Online Safety Act 2023 contains strong protections for children and will make the UK the safest place to be a child online. As well as protecting children from illegal material, all services likely to be accessed by children will need to provide additional protection for those children. Those safety measures will need to protect children from harmful content and behaviours such as bullying, abuse and harassment, as well as content depicting or promoting violence.

The media regulator, Ofcom, has published draft codes of practice. The regulator has said tech firms will need to configure their algorithms to filter out the most harmful content from children's feeds, and reduce the visibility and prominence of other harmful content. Other proposed measures include forcing companies to perform more rigorous age checks if they show harmful content, and making them implement stronger content moderation, including a so called "safe search" function on search engines that restricts inappropriate material. These new measures will come into force in the second half of 2025 and the regulator is seeking responses to its consultation on the draft codes until 17 July, after which is says it expects to publish final versions of them within a year. As I understand firms will then have three months to carry out risk assessments on how children could encounter harmful content on their platforms and their mitigations, taking Ofcom's guidance into account. 

Parents have a vital role to play in their child’s development. NHS advice to parents of babies and older children is to reduce their time in front of the screen and to encourage them to be active instead. To this end, the Government is supporting parents to provide a rich home learning environment for their children. The Government’s Family Hubs programme is helping thousands of families across England with issues such as mental health and relationship building. Parents across England can now access free help and support at local Family Hubs, with all 75 local authorities involved in the government scheme now offering access to a centre. These 75 areas are benefitting from £300 million of investment, with the hubs offering support from conception through to age 19, or up to 25 for children with special education needs and disabilities.