Remove smartphones from the hands of under-18s and maybe they will grow up to be less dumb

We must re-engage young people in our democracy, and learn some lessons from the SNP’s stunning success.

Janet Street-Porter
Friday 29 May 2015 18:26
A teenage girl uses her smartphone in bed.
A teenage girl uses her smartphone in bed.

Steve Hilton – the former adviser to David Cameron and potential mayoral candidate – is famously laid back. He came round to my house for coffee during his time in Downing Street, dressed in trainers, a baggy T-shirt and shorts. He cycles everywhere. But just because he does not wear a suit is no reason to assume the 45-year-old’s thinking is sloppy – far from it. Now a professor at Stanford University, Hilton has been in the UK promoting his new book, More Human.

At a talk the other day, he dared to suggest that teenagers should be banned from carrying smartphones until they are 18. He says that easily available porn is having a brutalising effect on boys. Girls are viewed as objects to be passed around. Phones allow them to share imagery, make snap judgements and communicate without ever speaking.

My friends with teenagers complain their children have lost the power of speech (not that my generation was particularly communicative), that they watch television while texting and commenting online, and spend hours just staring at tiny screens.

In the US, many schools are banning smartphones and tablets, so why is the same not happening here? Some do, but all UK schools should install secure bins inside their gates and pay for guards to remove gadgets from pupils. We all know teens cheekily sit with their phones on silent mode, operating them behind a teacher’s back, even when they are supposedly banned. The people at Apple who invented these phones and tablets don’t let their own children use them – doesn’t that say it all? Some bosses in Silicon Valley go as far as preventing their children from using the internet at all until they are teenagers.

The notorious selfie is a threadbare form of expression, encouraging young women to post inane pictures of themselves every hour of the day in order to feel important. In short, their lives are viewed as meaningless unless they are doing something online. Teenagers don’t want to leave their bedrooms, they are so locked into this twilight world.

It’s time for the Government to make an unpopular decision. Forget all the twaddle about One Nation Britain, working families and so on. What about leading from the front and banning smartphones, in the same way the law already prevents children from smoking and drinking? To buy or own a smartphone or tablet you should need a licence, and proof you are over 18. Let the ban be draconian, let everyone moan about their “human rights”, but get on with it before things get any worse.

More than half of our young people who are classified as Neets (not in education, employment or training) are not the slightest bit interested in working. They have no qualifications. They are illiterate and innumerate. They can’t hold a conversation and they are unemployable. Each one can be saved. But they have to give up their phones during the hours it is going to take for someone to sort them out. They should be assigned an adult mentor, nurtured and helped to re-enter the real world of work. These Neets are the human detritus washed up by the smartphone epidemic. They can play idiot computer games and can use all manner of apps, but they can’t actually form a sentence.

Pupils in the UK are ranked 36th in the world for academic performance. Our graduates have the worst maths skills in the developed world, and our 16- to 29-year-olds were ranked second to last. Mothers will say young children need phones for security – and yes, special basic models should be available, which take only pay-as-you-go cards and have just two functions: taking and receiving calls.

Meanwhile, the phone companies target younger and younger children. Vodafone’s latest slogan is Live Life on 4G, with an ad featuring four young boys in a school playground. Steve Hilton reckons smartphones are dangerous weapons because of the effect they are having on young women. I’d go further. Smartphones are spawning dumb children.

When will our politicians grow up about young voters?

Talking about young people and their rights, I find it incredible that David Cameron has decided 16-year-olds cannot vote in the EU referendum. What does that tell us about how politicians view the young? Always a problem, never part of the solution.

The PM talks of “one nation” – but his vision seems to be a club for the over-18s. In Scotland, 16-year-olds were allowed to vote for the first time last year in the independence referendum, and the results can be seen now in the House of Commons – the youngest MP is just 20. Mhairi Black unseated Labour stalwart (and bore) Douglas Alexander, winning his seat for the SNP.

It might seem inconsistent to want to ban phones and let young people vote, but I’m unapologetic about that. We must re-engage them in our democracy, and learn some lessons from the SNP’s stunning success.

The EU referendum was a great opportunity, which Cameron has bottled. I hope he reconsiders.

A pack of jokers in the running for London mayor

George Galloway wants to run for London mayor in 2016. Is he having a laugh? Is this failed MP so power mad he can’t contemplate life outside the limelight?

The line-up of prospective mayoral candidates grows each week. I’ve met David Lammy, Ivan Massow and Tessa Jowell, who is highly competent but lacks the media-friendly pizzazz we’ve come to expect from Boris (who never passes up a photo opportunity or the chance for a jokey quote). Lammy (who has been remodelled and now spouts New Age rubbish about “goals”) and Massow (who was ill-informed and waffling at the Independent debate I attended) are no-hopers, but Galloway takes the prize for joke candidate.

Having failed to hold his seat in Bradford West after a controversial campaign, he stands a far better chance of reappearing on Big Brother than getting his feet inside City Hall. At this rate, I’ll have to stand – unlike Galloway I was born in London, studied there and have spent my entire working life in the city.

You’ve got to be tough to survive in the countryside

I spent Thursday up to my elbows in dirt, planting runner beans. Frost has decimated earlier specimens. These chaps had been hardened off in my ramshackle cold frame, and I gave them a little chat about toughening up. Like my grandfather and my dad, I love growing vegetables, even posting pictures on Twitter (#vegporn) and having a little sulk with each failure – such as the courgettes that turned to mouldy mush.

I spend an increasing amount of time in Yorkshire, and it seems I’m part of a trend. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of professionals leaving London has risen dramatically – more than a quarter of a million between 2012 and 2013, 10,000 more than the previous year.

Many of these new country dwellers aim to be self-sufficient, buying smallholdings and growing their own veg, re-enacting a modern version of The Good Life. In my remote valley, I’ve seen many families attempt this, only to return to towns and cities when parents face spending hours driving teenagers to and from rugby practice.

The good life really suits only the childless and pensioners. When the supermarket, cinema and butcher are an hour away, you can end up isolated and even your own company can pall after a while. I’ll never be able to resist the cultural riches of city life.

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