MPs urge under-16s UK smartphone ban and statutory ban in schools | Smartphones

by Pelican Press
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MPs urge under-16s UK smartphone ban and statutory ban in schools | Smartphones

MPs have urged the next government to consider a total ban on smartphones for under 16-year-olds and a statutory ban on mobile phone use in schools as part of a crackdown on screen time for children.

Members of the House of Commons education committee made the recommendations in a report into the impact of screen time on education and wellbeing, which also called on ministers to raise the threshold for opening a social media account to 16.

Robin Walker MP, the Conservative chair of the committee, said excessive screen and smartphone use had a “clear negative impact” on the wellbeing of children and young people.

Walker said: “From exposure to pornography, to criminal gangs using online platforms to recruit children, the online world poses serious dangers. Parents and schools face an uphill struggle and government must do more to help them meet this challenge. This might require radical steps, such as potentially a ban on smartphones for under-16s.”

Rishi Sunak has been weighing a ban on selling smartphones to under-16s, as well as raising the minimum age for social media accounts, but a planned consultation on the proposals has not been published.

The education committee report said the next government should work with Ofcom, the communications regulator, to launch a consultation on new measures for use of smartphones – handsets that allow people to easily download apps and view websites. These would include: a “total” ban of smartphones for children under 16; parental controls installed on phones by default; and controls in app stores to prevent children from accessing inappropriate content.

The report also says the government should consider enshrining in law a ban on mobile phone use in schools in England. In February ministers issued guidance for headteachers that “prohibits the use of mobile phones” throughout the school day.

The report called for a formal monitoring regime to gauge the impact of the ban and to keep in reserve the option of making it statutory. “If results show that a non-statutory ban has been ineffective in 12 months, the government must move swiftly to introduce a statutory ban,” said the report.

The report added that the next government must launch a consultation before the end of 2024 on whether 13 is an appropriate age for children to allow social media platforms to access their personal data online – and open a social media account. The minimum age for opening an account on most major platforms in the UK is 13.

Pointing out that the age of consent in the UK is 16, that a child cannot drive until they are 17, and that the voting threshold in England is 18, the report added: “The next government should recommend 16 as a more appropriate age [for the age of digital consent].”

The report cited research showing a 52% increase in children’s screen time between 2020 and 2022 and a study showing nearly 25% of children and young people use their smartphones in an addictive manner. It also flagged research from the children’s commissioner for England showing that 79% of children had encountered violent pornography online before the age of 18.

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Ofcom reported recently that a quarter of three- and four-year-olds in the UK now own a smartphone, with nearly all children owning a mobile by the age of 12. The communications regulator also found that half of children under 13 are on social media.

The MPs said: “The overwhelming weight of evidence submitted to us suggests that the harms of screen time and social media use significantly outweigh the benefits for young children.”

Smartphone Free Childhood, a campaign group calling for handset restrictions, welcomed the report. “It’s hugely encouraging to see this influential committee, who have heard a wide range of evidence from experts across education and child development, coming to the same conclusion as our grassroots community of 100,000 parents,” said Daisy Greenwell, the group’s co-founder.

Ian Russell, the chair of the Molly Rose Foundation and whose 14-year-old daughter Molly took her own life after viewing harmful material on social media, said the next government should concentrate on regulation and not bans that could deliver “worse outcomes”.

He said: “Smartphone and social media bans would cause more harm than good and punish children for the failures of tech companies to protect them. The next government must follow the evidence and deliver stronger regulation.”

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