Using the power of technology wisely


by Dr Ruth Sullivan , Headmistress of Sherborne Girls

Anyone who spends time with young people will know what a dominant force digital technology can be in their lives. The hours spent clicking and swiping, liking and emoting, can seem endless with the phone or tablet an apparently constant fixture. But a survey conducted by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) reveals that young people themselves may be less enamoured of the technology than their actions suggest.


According to the research, some 63 per cent of young people in state and independent schools wouldn’t mind if social media had never been invented, while 71 per cent admitted to undergoing ‘digital detoxes’ in an effort to wean themselves off the technology. Closer examination of the findings reveals why the respondents feel this way. More than half admitted to receiving abusive comments online, or said that social media makes them feel less confident about how they look, or how interesting their life is and 56 per cent said they feel on the edge of addiction to social media.

That makes for sobering reading if you work in education, especially in a boarding school environment. Parents devolve responsibility for their children’s welfare to boarding staff, trusting us to make wise judgements about their day-to-day lives in ways that are conducive to their flourishing. 

Judging by the research on social media, and digital technology more widely, restricting access to screen time would seem to be a very good way to help young people to thrive – or at least to remove some obstacles to their wellbeing. In fact, the potential damage caused by over-exposure to digital media runs deeper still. A recent study at Sherborne Girls, in advance of launching a new policy on mobile phone use, highlighted a clear link between screen time and screen dependency and issues such as anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation and problems concentrating in class. 

Learning the right habits

That is why I firmly believe young people have to learn the right habits regarding digital technology if they are to flourish. Boarding schools must take a lead in managing pupils’ engagement with technology, ensuring they strike an appropriate balance between realising its potential and mitigating its risks. The evidence is that each boarding school should shape its own approach to suit its respective students and the school ethos. 

My instinct is that a wall of separation needs to exist between using digital devices for educational purposes and using them for pleasure or recreation. If a pupil wants to research a project using the internet or use the latest software to produce a stellar presentation for their next talk in assembly, schools should certainly ensure they have access to a suitable device. 

Likewise, it is my view that pupils should be given some space to use the internet in the way they will undoubtedly do so as adults, albeit with appropriate controls: roaming from site to site, using search engines to follow their whims and discovering new things about the world around them. It is that serendipitous mode of enquiry that yields some of the most exciting moments, when a new connection is made, or some fascinating knowledge acquired. 

That is why I firmly believe young people have to learn the right habits regarding digital technology if they are to flourish

School-wide policy

Advice given to Sherborne Girls from the neuroscientist and psychologist Dr Aric Sigman indicated that a blanket ban on the use of digital technology during pupils’ downtime is not the way to encourage healthy habits. Far better to give them the opportunity to shape a school-wide policy that offers a balance between appropriate usage and periods of social media blackout, meaning they have a say in what constitutes the right degree of engagement. Our pupils were very mature in their response to this challenge. Perhaps reflecting the insights of the HMC survey, most girls were pleased to agree a limit on social media use. Indeed, even though we have not extended our restrictions to the sixth form, many abide by them of their own volition, because they recognise their worth. 

Introduced in 2017, our mobile technology policy requires pupils in the lower- and middle-school to leave their mobile phones in boarding houses during lessons and we block access to social media throughout the school day. The block is lifted during break times and in the evenings, but all devices are taken in an hour before bedtime and given out again at breakfast. This allows our students to have time in the evening to read, talk, play games and interact with each other face-to-face, before they go to bed.

By engaging with parents and pupils alike, and drawing insight from experts such as Dr Sigman, boarding schools can work effectively to develop a policy that is right for them. It is crucial to secure buy-in from everyone who the policy affects, and to be clear about the continued encouragement to engage with technology for academic purposes. 

To thrive in the twenty-first century, our pupils need to be digital natives who can communicate using the very latest technology but no one wants their life to be dominated by a screen. By developing and adopting the right policies within the boarding environment, schools can set up the conditions for their pupils to thrive in a world of opportunity. Then they will understand that, as with all things, moderation is the key to appropriate consumption of the latest technology and boarding schools take their responsibility to support their students in this area very seriously.

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