“Absolute silence for 30 minutes on school buses as all girls are using mobile phones…”

The headline is a quote from Bloomfield Collegiate School principal Gary Greer in a letter to parents.

Pupils were informed this morning in registration that a mobile phone ban would be put in place for the remainder of the term.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, we have real concerns about mental health and the lack of ability to socialise due to too much screen time during lock down. It has been reported to me that there is absolute silence for 30 minutes on school buses as all girls are using mobile phones. That is replicated in many form rooms before the start of registration. I never thought that I would say it, but we need to get the girls talking again.

Secondly, every issue brought to our attention since the return to school has involved social media and the use of phones in school. I cannot count the hours my Heads of Year, Designated Teacher for Child Protection and I have spent investigating instances of inappropriate behaviour either instigated, or inflamed, by texting one another or contacting home before staff can deal with the issue; we have had enough to deal with this year. I trust that I can depend on your support in this.

It is good to see a school recognising the issue and taking steps to help. But it is part of a wider problem of a society growing more insular.

Even before the pandemic, there was concern over this trend. I remember reading a newspaper report where a youth football coach said that changing rooms are now silent as the players are on their phones. Young people are actively avoiding face to face conversations in favour of texting, and because of lack of practice are having problems reading body language and expressing themselves verbally.

It is easy to put the blame on social media and phone use, but I think these are symptoms of an increasingly anxious and lonely society.

The mobile phone has replaced the cigarette as the thing we turn to when we are bored or anxious. You see it everywhere: in a queue for a cafe or shop, any pause in the day people whip out their phones for a quick peek at Twitter or whatever. There is a joke you see often on social media where someone comments that they saw someone in a cafe – not on their phone, but just sitting there staring out the window like some kind of weirdo.

Our smartphones have been our safety blanket in an increasingly stressful world, but just like cigarettes, the thing we turn to in times of anxiety is the thing that is making the problem worse.

Anxious parents collude in this Faustian pact. You don’t want your kid to be wandering the streets where they could get knocked down/beat up/molested/killed/introduced to drugs [insert your worst fear]. Far better that your kids stay at home where it is safe and you can keep a good eye on them. The message is the world is a dark and terrifying place so don’t even bother.

Adults are equally afflicted by this issue. Who amongst us has not thought when invited to an event or party: I would prefer to stay home and watch Netflix? Going out seems such a hassle, why bother? Membership of clubs and societies is at an all-time low as people complain of not having the time. But strangely people find the time to spend 6 hours a day on their devices.

Streets and playparks are now mostly silent as kids stay indoors on screens. What play there is now has to be structured and supervised. We taxi our kids from one activity to the next. Childhood obesity is at an all-time high, and fat kids grow into fat adults with the associated costs on an already strained NHS.

Friends who teach in universities tell me that as many as 25% of students now have some kind of mental health issue and a massive part of their job is counselling. Helicopter parenting and an excessive focus on exam results and extracurricular activities have created stressed-out high achievers who will crack either at college or at work.

The upshot of all this is an epidemic of loneliness. Humans are social creatures. There is a reason why the most severe punishment a prison can give is to send someone to solitary. Loneliness is worse for you than obesity and as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Society is growing sicker mentally, physically and emotionally. What to do?

As the cliche goes, you need to put on your own oxygen mask first. Look at your own habits and decide if they are helping you or making things worse. Switch off the telly and read a book, go for a walk, ring a friend – don’t just text them, meet up with friends for a drink or lunch, get a new hobby, stop watching/reading the news so much, use the screen time features of your phone to set a time limit of social media and other addictive apps, stare out a window, do a jigsaw, lie on the sofa and listen to music.

Compared to cyberspace the real world is boring. But boring is what we all need. We need to kick the constant dopamine hits of notifications and tweets. ‘I am bored’ should become a badge of pride, something to aspire to. Bored people change the world. Be bored and brilliant.

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