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How the iphone generation of teenagers can benefit from good character education more than ever

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Wednesday 31 October 2018

How the iphone generation of teenagers can benefit from good character education more than ever

Guest blog by Tenax Schools Trust CEO, Ian Bauckham CBE

A few weeks ago the Daily Telegraph published a front page story featuring some comments I made about the dangers of constant mobile phone use among teenagers with some advice to parents on how best to model moderate internet use.  The feedback from this article was mixed, though the majority I spoke to thought it was high time the constant and ubiquitous use of smartphones by young people was tackled. 

Around the year 2012, not exactly ancient history, a tipping point was reached in smart phone ownership.  Today it is the exception to find a teenager who does not own a smart phone.  And in that time the world teenagers inhabit has changed markedly.  All observations about ‘teenagers’ are necessarily generalisations, and there will always be notable exceptions, but large scale studies on both sides of the Atlantic do identify some significant general trends:

  • Contemporary teenagers are, in some important ways, ‘growing up less fast’ than their immediate predecessors, in that they are doing ‘adult’ things that teenagers have long done later than the previous generation of teenagers. Examples include learning to drive, leaving home, having sex or becoming pregnant as a teenager, drinking alcohol, or having a job
  • The internet dominates their leisure time, they see their friends or acquaintances face to face less and spend less time outdoors or even outside the home than recent generations of teenagers
  • They are probably physically the safest generation ever, are more safety conscious, and take fewer physically risks
  • They tend to be much more tolerant and inclusive, especially of individuals’ rights (eg LGBT), many believe in the right not even to be offended (which we see manifested in universities especially where ‘no-platforming’ policies for controversial speakers are becoming common
  • Money and financial security are much more important motivators than for previous generations, perhaps because of the challenging financial climate they will live in as young adults; in some cases this is at the expense of intrinsic motivation or community mindedness. When asked why they go to university for example, many more teenagers now say ‘to get a better job’ than ‘to become a better educated person’ than even ten years ago.
  • Teenagers today experience far higher and fast rising rates of mental ill-health, self harm, anxiety and stress, depression (especially but not exclusively among girls) and suicide (where girls are rapidly ‘catching up’ with boys, among whom teenage suicide has long been more common). Sometimes school pressures are blamed for these mental health problems. It is not clear this is the case as mental health is a rising teenage problem everywhere, regardless of type of school system.  Moreover, a number of studies have found that time spent doing homework, a good proxy for school pressure, correlates inversely with anxiety and depression (ie the more time you spend doing homework the less likely you are to experience these – perhaps because homework squeezes out social media use).

This sample of general characteristics of current teenagers clearly presents some challenges, and, while not all of it is directly attributable to internet use, much has happened since constant internet access became normal.  A recent study in England found that by the age of 7, children will have spent an average of 4 hours a day looking at screens, twice the amount of time spent playing outdoors.

So what should our response be? Some approaches focus on restricting internet access or use.  In France, from this September, mobiles have been banned in all schools, and many schools in England are following suit.  At Bennett we do not allow mobile phones to be used in school. There is growing pressure on internet companies to restrict content available to young people.  These approaches have their place and may often be helpful.  However, we cannot ‘uninvent’ the internet or smartphones, so learning to manage, regulate and live alongside the internet needs to become a priority.  There is certainly scope for greater understanding of the impact of unregulated use of the internet by young people to enable parents to play a stronger and better informed role.

In schools, there is much more that can be done alongside banning mobiles (which, while effective for 6 hours a day, does not prevent them from being used for the other 18 hours).  While the focus of schools has rightly been the quality of academic learning and accountability for academic outcomes, we also need to be clear that the formation of young people’s character is also a critical purpose for education, and, indeed, properly understood is inseparable from a good academic education.  Good character development and formation for all young people can rebalance some of the negative effects of excessive internet use and can result in young people using their time differently.

So what does character education mean? ‘Good character’ is complex, but I would like to suggest some priorities for schools to help develop character. 

  • Firstly, schools can help to form the habits of altruism and commitment to causes and needs beyond the individual. While today’s teenagers are tolerant and inclusive, they are often also highly individualistic. Individualism is a double edged sword: no-one wants to live in a coercive society where individual choice is limited and disapproved, and in this sense individualism should be seen as a positive.  However, freedom from coercion and social pressure is only step one in the road to a good life.  We need to practise using that freedom to choose our own commitments, for example to our communities.  Schools can help young people uncover the benefits of a service oriented life shaped by commitment – the highest use of our individual freedom – and help shape the habits of living by such commitments.
  • Secondly, a key feature of character is ability to maintain motivation and belief in my ability to succeed in long projects and not be thrown off course by setbacks. Planning programmes especially for academic learning, but also for co-curricular activities, which systematically put in place the building blocks needed for long term success, from the bottom up, and emphasising in all we do the importance of mastering and assessing each step towards the final goal, is an important way of developing my belief in my ability to succeed long term.
  • Thirdly, schools can help create contexts for introducing pupils to face to face networks, groups and teams with a common purpose. If these are for music or sport for example, not only is the benefit that they learn and improve their abilities in music or sport, but also that they spend time with others people, learn about working in teams and relating to others in the real world, get used to engaging with others from different backgrounds, and often spend much needed time outdoors.  And critically, every minute spent in these co-curricular activities is a minute not spent on a mobile phone or online.

The hyperconnected world in which teenagers now live, far from making traditional approaches to character development superfluous, actually make it radically more important that schools understand the importance of character education and its inseparability from good academic education. Only in this way can schools genuinely claim to be places where the next generation is formed.