Patrick Gower says it's time to ban smartphones in schools

Warning this story contains images and content some may find disturbing. 

OPINION: We have a bullying epidemic in our schools - and phones are incubating the disease.

So it is time to think big.

Everybody knows the damage smartphones are doing to our kids. But hardly anyone in this country is talking about banning them in our primary schools, our intermediate schools and our high schools. 

Maybe because it will be too hard, maybe because it'll be unpopular. 

But we could give all our kids seven hours a day with no smartphones. To just be kids again. 

There's one way to do that. 

It's time to ban smartphones in schools. 

I say we do it. And I'm prepared to stand up and call for it. 

Let's take bullying. Our kids are beating the absolute crap out of each other nearly every day in our schools. 

And it's getting worse. 

Ten years ago the police were called to our schools 500 times a year to deal with violence. 

It's gone up and up and up since. Last year it was 800 times and this year it’s heading for 1000. 

When I was at school the cops never came to school for violence. It would have been the biggest story in Taranaki if they ever did. 

Now it's happening 1000 times a year. 

What's changed? We all know what - mobile phones. 

And that means my issue is also with mobile phones. Because these beatings are filmed, shared and liked. 

I'm going to hit you with some numbers. 

We all know that more kids have phones now than ever. How many? Sixty-six percent of Kiwi 11-year-olds have one. 

By the time they're 14, it's 95 percent. And basically, every single 17-year-old has one. 

We get the feeling that kids are online a lot, but how much? Well it's growing fast.

We know from a growing body of international research that social media, the disease that incubates on mobile phones, makes bullying much worse.

This attack happened at a girl's intermediate school.
This attack happened at a girl's intermediate school. Photo credit: Newshub

Firstly, old school bullying was mostly at school. Home was a reprieve, a safe haven. But thanks to mobile phones our kids are being bullied in their bedrooms, on weekends or late into the night. They are never safe.

Don't think your kid's been bullied? I hope you're right, but kids victimised on their phones don't want to tell anyone because they don't want to have their phone taken off them. They're keeping quiet. 

Do we need more bad news? One study showed online bullying traumatises kids again and again as videos are shared and commented on, with social media algorithms even serving kids the videos of their own beating. 

At the 2023 BAFTAs Kate Winslet gave an acceptance speech whilst pleading with governments to criminalize harmful content and told young people - this does not need to be your life.

And America's top public health doctor, Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy,  issued an advisory saying social media isn't safe and urged governments and parents to "take immediate action to protect kids now" 

So. We can't do anything about it, right? Not right actually. In Australia, they've at least tried to make school a safe place. 

Cellphones are banned from schools in Victoria, Banned in South Aust, Banned in Northern Territory, Banned in Western Australia, Tasmania, and in New South Wales the ban is coming this year. Even Queensland are considering it. What are we doing? Nothing.

It's complex. But here's a simple solution. Something you can do: Your kid's first phone should be one of these: a dumb phone. No camera, no social media, no dopamine drain. Texting and ringing only.

But this issue of bullying has shown me we need to do more. Earlier this year I asked people to send in some examples of bullying for the upcoming series of Paddy Gower Has Issues. 

I was inundated. We got examples from all over the country, every sort of school. From parents, kids and teachers. This could happen to any kid, any day. 

The violent beating we highlighted in our bullying story happened in an intermediate school. 

Those were intermediate-aged girls, I've met the victim and gone to the school for the latest episode. 

I'm sure that every New Zealander will be shocked by that level of violence. But honestly, it is happening everywhere.

I'm calling this our "bullying epidemic". 

This is an issue for all of us and we need to act. And we can start by banning smartphones in schools.