Total ban on under-16s owning smartphones should be considered by next government, MPs suggest

A young girl using a mobile phone. Credit: PA

A ban on mobile phones in schools and a total ban on phones for under-16s should be considered by the next government, according to a report from MPs.

The House of Commons Education Committee argued that tougher guidance on mobile phones in schools and managing children's screen time is needed to protect young people.

It stated that screen time was harmful to a child's mental and physical health. Contesting that both parents and schools need clear guidance from the government.

Earlier this year, the Department for Education issued guidance, which is non-statutory, instructing headteachers on how to ban the use of phones not only during lessons but during break and lunch periods as well.

It also suggested that staff could search pupils and their bags for mobile phones if necessary.

But the committee has said this does not go far enough.

Its report said the next government should consult on raising the age of digital consent from 13 to 16, and should consider a total ban on smartphones for under-16s, as well as a full statutory ban on mobile phones in schools, pointing to a rise in children’s screen time and phone use that is consistent with a behavioural addiction.

It said there had been a 52% increase in children’s screen time between 2020 and 2022, with a quarter said to be using their devices in an addictive manner.

The report said it had found that for some, screen time was beginning at as early as six months of age, with one in five children aged between three and four now having their own mobile phone, with almost all children now having one by the time they were 12.

MPs on the committee said that while the Online Safety Act will play a role in keeping children safe from online harms, full protection will not come until the Act is fully implemented in 2026.

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Committee chairman Robin Walker said: “Excessive screen and smartphone use has a clear negative impact on the mental and physical wellbeing of children and young people.

“Our inquiry heard shocking statistics on the extent of the damage being done to under-18s, particularly those who are already extremely vulnerable, such as those in care.

“Without urgent action, more children will be put in harm’s way. 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.

“Our report found that digital age of consent checks are not fit for purpose. We heard no evidence demonstrating that 13-year-olds understood the ramifications of sharing personal information online and today’s report urges the government to increase this age to 16.

“It’s also clear that children require face-to-face and in-person social contact in order to thrive. Our report found that screen time is inversely associated with working memory, processing, attention levels, language skills and executive function."

However, online safety campaigner Ian Russell, whose 14-year-old daughter Molly took her own life after viewing harmful material on social media, said a ban on phones or social media access would “cause more harm than good” and would “punish children for the failures of tech companies to protect them”.

Mr Russell, who set up and is now chairman of the Molly Rose Foundation suicide prevention charity, said: “The next government must follow the evidence and deliver stronger regulation, not policies that would be slower to implement and deliver worse outcomes.

“The quickest and most effective route to protect children’s online safety and wellbeing is to strengthen the Online Safety Act in the next parliament and we call on all parties to commit to this in their manifestos.”

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