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Left to their own devices

Author: Simon D Weale, BCS Director

Next week, every BCS boy will spend a bit of time under canvas during our annual tours and treks week.  Last year, we took everyone on safari, but this year we are going back to basics and enjoying the simpler benefits of life under the stars.  We don’t lack for mountains in Himachal and the boys will partake in a school tradition which is a first step towards the chance of going on our 6000m+ mountaineering expedition in the Upper Sixth.  One might think that the prospect of spending some time in the wilderness would prompt questions about possible encounters with bears or leopards or the prospects of some spring snow, but inevitably the question I am being asked is ‘Can we take our devices?’ There are some good reasons for phones on such trips – not least as a means to summon help in an emergency, or even to capture the magnificence of the scenery, but it is more basic than that.  It would seem that most young people would happily spend most waking hours online and our boys are no different.

We do pretty well with phone management at BCS.  Below the Sixth Form, pupils get one hour per week of supervised access to mobile phones so that they can WhatsApp call their parents.  The older boys get a little more time.  As we roll out a better IT infrastructure this may become a little more flexible, but safeguarding will always be a priority.  As in most Indian boarding schools, our boys get very little access to mobile phones and as a result they spend their spare time reading, playing and talking to each other – it is how a childhood should be.

Everyone should read Jonathan Haidt’s new article for the Atlantic magazine, ‘The terrible cost of a phone-based childhood’.  Haidt makes a compelling case that the huge rise in reported mental health issues amongst young people in the Western world (and increasingly in the East) has been caused not by the pandemic or other suggested reasons such as fears of global warming, but by the introduction of smart phones in the early 2010s.  Haidt argues that an entire generation have been ‘raised by algorithms’ and hijacked by the tech industry with enormous consequences for society – ‘Generation Z were social distancing long before the pandemic’.   The virtual community that we spend much of our time living in imitates, but does not replicate, the socializing norms that humans have spent thousands of years developing.  The fear of getting things wrong to a vast and harsh online audience is making us increasingly risk averse and withdrawn.

Haidt believes that society is now faced with a ‘collective action problem’ – a problem that most acknowledge, but can only be solved if we all pull together.  He points out a four-pronged solution to it – No smart phones before secondary school, no social media platforms before the age of 16, no phones in school and a determined attempt to provide young people with more opportunities to be independent, responsible for themselves and to enjoy free play.  It is plan we should all consider before we next leave our children to their own ‘devices’.

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