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  1. Business
28 February 2024

The wisest investment in your child is not giving them a smartphone

Preserving your child’s ability to focus confers a competitive advantage.

By Will Dunn

A contact who works for a well-known technology business told me about an awkward moment at a recent all-hands meeting. It had become obvious that children were using the company’s app to view content that was not appropriate, so one colleague suggested they restrict access to people who could verify that they were over 16. After an uncomfortable pause, a senior executive explained that this would never happen; the company’s business model depends upon children continuing to use the app, whatever they might find on it.

This is true of all online platforms, which sell the attention of their users as a tradeable commodity. Snippets of your focus are sold in auctions conducted by machines over tiny fractions of a second. For this market to work, it’s necessary for the machines to break your attention up, using a constant stream of distractions: notifications for everything, updates from everyone, a torrent of unnecessary information made to seem important by tricksy design and confected emotion.

There are plenty of reasons why you shouldn’t do this in a school. For the purposes of this column, the main one is that it involves a lot of extra work. In 1927, the psychologist Arthur T Jersild devised experiments to show that people took longer to complete simple arithmetic tasks when they had to alternate between sets of rules. Almost a century of further experiments has shown that the “switch cost” of shifting attention is significant. One of the authors of a major 2001 study, David E Meyer, observed that workers might be losing 20 to 40 per cent of their productivity to the cognitive effort wasted on “multitasking”. The effects were even more pronounced when the tasks being switched to became more complex or emotionally charged, which describes just about everything on the internet.

Everyone should do less unpaid work for Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk (see Oxford University’s “Reduce Digital Distraction” project for some good tips). For parents, it seems there is no better investment than preventing your child from owning a smartphone for as long as possible.

As an investment, education has relative rather than absolute value: it’s about getting better grades than the other kids who are also competing for the university place or job you want. In a society in which more than 90 per cent of 11-year-olds own a smartphone – built to disrupt their attentional control, on behalf of the world’s richest people – preserving your child’s ability to focus is a competitive advantage.

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This was confirmed at the end of last year by the world’s biggest standardised test of educational attainment, the Programme for International Student Assessment (or Pisa), which has documented a decade-long downward trend in educational attainment since 2012. The OECD, which runs the survey, says, “No single country showed an increasingly positive trend in any subject.” The one factor in common, across 690,000 students in 81 countries, was that one in three children becomes distracted by a digital device every time they try to learn maths. A child who spends up to one hour a day using digital devices “for leisure” (ie, not for learning) was found to be 49 points – equivalent to more than two years of education – ahead of a child who spends five to seven hours a day on screens, even after accounting for socio-economic factors. That is a gap no private school or tutor can bridge.

The government is rightly doing more to ask schools to prevent phone use, but this would at best cover devices that are actually used during class. Many parents have been duped into thinking their child is safer with a phone (there is no evidence this is the case, and ample evidence of the dangers posed by technology). Keeping these devices out of your child’s life for as long as possible is a difficult fight that you are all but destined to lose – but there is little doubt that holding out pays off.

[See also: The QE theory of everything]


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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything

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