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Chris McGovern: Schools use excessive screen time to keep kids in line


Under the executive chairmanship of former Lib Dem schools minister, David Laws, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) has considerable muscle and influence in the world of education. It describes itself as  “an independent, impartial and evidence-based research institute that aims to promote high quality education outcomes, regardless of social background.”

EPI’s staff of 15 it backed up by a cohort of ‘big hitting’ trustees, advisers, guest writers and partners. These expert heavyweights range from Baroness Morgan of Huyton, the former chairman of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, ex-chief inspector of schools, to Professor, the Baroness Wolf, and Lord Willetts, the one time higher education minister.

It should never be assumed, however, that even such a prestigious organisation is immune from daft and dangerous conclusions. This is illustrated by it latest report – “Social Media and Children’s Mental Health: A Review of the Evidence”. The BBC headlined the report’s conclusions accurately enough – “Limiting children’s use of the internet will not protect them against the ills of social media, researchers say.”

The EPI ‘round-up’ of research confirmed that more than a third of the UK’s 15-year-olds are, in OECD terms, “extreme internet users”. This means that they are online for the equivalent of their whole evening on school days and for at least six hours per day when not in school. In addition 56 per cent of 10-15 year-olds spend three hours or more on social media after school on a normal school day.

The Education Policy Institute’s conclusion in response runs long the lines of making drug addicts more resistant to the effects of the technology drug by maintaining a high dose. And, of course, in a sense, this is true! The more of a drug you take the less you are affected by a small dose. A ‘full-on’ heroin addict will not be much affected by a small dose. The same is true of digital technology and social media. If kids have plenty of exposure to the technology drug, they become more resistant to the bad effects of small amounts. Unlike the ‘experts’ from the EPI you may, however, spot a dangerous flaw in this logic.

Schools are feeding this technology addiction on a daily, even hourly, basis through a blind and misguided belief that it is the key to raising standards. It allows learning to be ‘personalised’ and gives the teacher an easier time. Kids doped on computers – educational cocaine – cause less trouble. The OECD has pointed out, however, that over-dosing on digital technology in schools is a symptom of under-performing education systems around the world.

In her important and insightful book, Mind Change, Baroness Greenfield points out that brain scans show clearly enough that digital technology has the same physiological ‘pleasure’ effect on the brain as cocaine and is equally addictive.

Exposure to the virtual world of digital technology is changing, in an observable way, the physiology of children’s brains at a vulnerable stage in their development. We will not discover the long-term consequences, if any, for some years. In the meantime the EPI’s advice appears to playing a game of Russian roulette with the mental health of young people.  Greenfield warns that ‘mind change’ should be at least as big a concern as ‘climate change’.

Before reaching its dangerous conclusion, the EPI should have taken note of the type of schools that are becoming increasingly popular with computer company bosses and their employers in California. As The Guardian reported in December 2105:

“In the heart of Silicon Valley is a nine-classroom school where employees of tech giants Google, Apple and Yahoo send their children. But despite its location in America’s digital centre, there is not an iPad, smartphone or screen in sight.”

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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