Square-eyed screenagers: are phones corrupting our kids?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London


Digital devices are so omnipresent that sociologists call today’s children ‘Generation Glass’. Our pre-teens have never known a world without tablets and apps. The ubiquity of technology during their formative years risks turning them into ‘screenagers’ with high digital literacy but low socialisation and focus.

In education, devices are routinely distributed to pupils and the gamification of learning is well-established. Yet pushback is mounting. The controversial Online Safety Bill proposes reams of radical measures drafted specifically to quell fears over children’s internet safety. Meanwhile increasing numbers of schools are adopting mobile-phone bans, claiming they improve concentration and mental health while reducing cheating and cyberbullying.

Parents’ lobby group UsForThem is even pressing for a total ban on phones for all under-16s and grim tobacco-style health warnings on devices. The campaign is endorsed by Katharine Birbalsingh, headteacher and former social mobility tsar, who has equated the threat to youth of mobile phones to that of heroin addiction.

But is this all merely a re-heat of the ‘square eyes’ moral panic which once beset television? The BBC thinks so: its high-profile Square-Eyed Boy campaign seeks to reassure parents that screens can be a force for good for children. After all, isn’t greater literacy, be it via screens or paper pages, something to be encouraged? Some teachers argue that phones can enhance schoolwork while others insist banning them is draconian, impractical and futile.

Should we take phones away from kids for their own good, or should the very idea be dismissed as screen-shaming?

Elliot Bewick
producer, TRIGGERnometry

Josephine Hussey
school teacher, AoI Education Forum

Molly Kingsley
co-founder, UsForThem; co-author, The Children’s Inquiry

Joe Nutt
international educational consultant; author, The Point of Poetry, An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Late Plays and A Guidebook to Paradise Lost

Professor Sir Simon Wessely
interim dean, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neurosciences; regius professor of psychiatry, King’s College London

Gareth Sturdy
physics adviser, Up Learn; education and science writer