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The Parliament Brief: will the new schools “phone ban” keep children safe?

Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, told MPs that most headteachers already restrict the use of devices.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Welcome to the Parliament Brief, where Spotlight, the New Statesman’s policy section, digests the latest and most important committee sessions taking place across the House of Commons and House of Lords. Previous editions can be found here.

Who? The Education Select Committee held an evidence session as part of its ongoing inquiry, titled: “Screen Time: Impacts on education and well-being”. It invited various policy experts in child online safety to give evidence. The most notable guest was Rachel de Souza, a former headteacher who has been the children’s commissioner for England since March 2021.

When? The session took place at 10am, on Tuesday 20 February 2024.

What was discussed? A lot of the questions directed at De Souza related to the Online Safety Act, which passed in October 2023. The new law (which was six years in the making) puts a legal requirement on websites that host user-to-user content, such as social media platforms, to prevent users from coming across illegal and harmful content. 

Ofcom, Britain’s media regulator, will be able to punish companies that fail to comply with the new laws by issuing fines of up to £18m, or 10 per cent of global turnover (whichever is highest). The act will take effect after future secondary legislation is passed, which will follow Ofcom publishing a “code of practice” outlining the parameters of what’s allowed to be published online.

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Why did this come up? Although the session had a heavy focus on online safety and the risks faced by children in digital spaces, De Souza’s appearance at the select committee was timely as the government published new guidance on the use of phones in schools the previous day. 

The new guidance outlines four options of varying severity that schools (many of which already operate with phone-restrictive policies) could introduce. These are: an outright ban, where no phones are allowed on premises; for students to hand their phones in to teachers on arrival at school, then collect them at the end of the day; for devices to be kept in a “secure location” (designated lockers, for example) throughout the school day; and for schools to operate a “never used, seen or heard” policy where students keep possession of their phones with “consequences” for those who break the rule.

So what did they say? The committee’s MPs asked De Souza about her views on the guidance and whether it would be effective, even though it has a non-statutory footing. “Most [headteachers] already do restrict phone use,” she said. “I welcome the guidance; it really gives more power to the elbow of [headteachers] to go the whole hog and deal with this.” De Souza added that she would like to use her statutory powers as children’s commissioner to audit what phone restriction measures every school in England has in place.

De Souza told the committee that when she was a headteacher roughly ten years ago, she instilled an out-of-sight policy to deter phone usage. “I’m not anti-tech,” she said, “I’m actually very pro-tech for learning, but you don’t need to be on your mobile phone in school [during] the day, and the problems that ensue [from that] are huge.”

Much of the conversation around young people’s phone usage centres around the ways they communicate with each other, and the content they consume on social media. As well as introducing strict age verification for certain websites, such as pornography sites, and preventing the spread of illegal content, such as terrorism or child abuse, the Online Safety Act includes a duty for platforms to prevent children from seeing “legal but harmful” content. This definition is broad, and can include cyberbullying, health misinformation and content that promotes eating disorders. De Souza told the committee that the act is “landmark legislation”, but added that “implementation is going to be everything”.

While the act “puts the onus” on technology companies and social media platforms to stop children viewing harmful content, De Souza warned that “there’s still a massive job for parents and schools to do”. “I don’t think anyone should solely rely on the [act] to keep children safe,” she added.

Anything else? Additions to the act through future secondary legislation could provide an opportunity to protect children from future threats as technology advances, said De Souza, such as deepfakes generated through artificial intelligence (AI).

“When I was a headteacher, Facebook was causing massive problems in my school,” she said towards the end of the session. “It’s now 2024, [and] we’re trying to do something about it [through legislation]. We don’t want to be in the same situation with AI; we want to embrace its possibilities, but get ahead of the potential problems as best we can.”

What next? The committee’s inquiry into screen time continues, though there are no further evidence sessions currently scheduled.

[See also: Esther Ghey: “The internet unleashed horrific things”]

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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