I LOOKED over my shoulder to the back seat, and there they were – three sparrows, including my niece, smartphones immediately up to their faces.

I made my attempt at jocularity, but the dad-joke was entirely spurned. Giggles, frowns and chats came in synchrony, as the girls’ republic of the after-school bubbled up on to their devices.

As my brother explained to me, their particular school bans them from using smartphones in class, and even in the yard at break times. So there’s an understandable eruption as they’re released back into society.

The scene reminded me of pulling out a 2000AD comic in the back of my mum’s Toyota Corolla, in sheer relief from the tall-poppy-chopping of late 70s Scottish education. Time for my pathway to the future now.

So, as you might imagine, I am not entirely – or even largely – jumping on the bandwagon that’s currently rolling towards banning smartphones from schools.

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It’s been mounting from various countries and zones (the UK Government has announced an effective ban, and the Scottish Education Minister Jenny Gilruth has been making sympathetic noises). The world event last week was New Zealand’s new centre-right government delivering on national phone bans as a manifesto promise.

The leading intellectual advocate for this is the US academic Jonathan Haidt. His forthcoming book is called The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.

Haidt wields a bracing social-science blunderbuss. He studs his prose with reference after reference, on how even the very presence of smartphones in their pockets makes schoolchildren lonelier, more depressed, less retentive of information.

A recent blog claimed to show a global correlation (if not yet causation) between the advent of mobile social media in 2012, and a spike in children’s mental ill-health, including wobbly school performances.

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Haidt’s work is intriguing to me. He wants to make a case for rough-and-tumble, face-to-face social play, and the way it contributes to our capacity for mature self-control in later life.

Haidt wants to identify screen-life and smartphone interaction as a threat to such character-building play. He veers into rightist language at times. For example, Haidt blames cancel culture on young adults made emotionally over-sensitive by their entanglements with social media (implying play deprivation).

His interview this month with Fraser Nelson in The Spectator hardly quells suspicions that schoolkids and their mobile phones are becoming a new conservative folk devil.

We really have been around this block many times. There’s been enough public scares about kids and media technology – comics, tv, music, computer games – that have eventually settled down into good policy and balanced ethics. The best we can say about school bans on smart phones is that it’s a stretch of the same arc.

There are a few immediate dangers the crusade presents. We may be giving contradictory messages to kids, if we start piously disentangling small-screen time and effective education.

For example: are we entirely sure we’re in a post-pandemic age? When we had to quarantine during Covid, all our networked devices – including the demonic smart-phone – were pressed into educational service.

Delivering lesson plans, tutoring by Zoom, group-learning through chat-forums… Have we forgotten all this?

So could we have a little more sympathy for a generation (or at least a sliver of it) clinging somewhat to their devices. They experienced their virtual relationships as necessary, not just entertainment. And, biosphere pending, they may have to do the same again.

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I can give another pushback on Haidt’s connection between the rise of mental health maladies among global youth, and the advent of social media on smartphones. I’m not minimising the “captology” of information giants. They use social media to exploit the psychological vulnerabilities of children, as they develop into adults.

But here’s what I would also say. Smartphones, via even their most basic social media apps, inescapably bring the chaos, malfeasance and heedless brutality of the (so-called) grown-up world to the attentions of children and young adults.

Isn’t their distress and anxiety, facing news of their future’s destruction by generations of the supposedly “mature”, to some degree entirely legitimate? Why should we shield them from that, as if they should be protected from the urgencies of the situation we are landing on them?

Indeed, what role have these pocket networked computers played in mobilising young folk, especially around environmental catastrophe? I don’t attribute much blame to kids walking out of school on a Friday, protesting against a system that is relentlessly driving itself over a climatic and technological cliff.

And if these revolting children have any activist infrastructure of their own, it exists at the end of their thumbs.

We burnish our history with tales of the great orators, essayist and pamphleteers (the Scottish revolutionary John Maclean’s anniversary was only this week). Yet our young digital natives have global, multi-media publishing houses literally at their fingertips.

We should only wish them to be more disruptive, militant and experimental with these devices, Greta willing.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, perhaps we are squinting at a generation whose brain structures are indeed shifting in a “cyborg” direction. Is that so scary and unfamiliar?

I remember the worried knock on my early-teen bedroom door, Mum anxious about my isolation. In truth, I was roaming the universe: SF novels, lurid comic books and schlocky videos/games. You be the judge, of course… but I think those virtual realms did me a lot of good.

So what even happens to education, when AI potentially puts a university-level tutor (maybe even a reconstituted genius) in every human’s pocket? Not just on this archipelago, but globally?

They look like digitally-addicted and network-obsessed kids, playing endlessly with issues of who they are and what they want. However, what if they are rehearsing for a coming new era?

One where they are close to machines that match, and amplify, their human complexity. An era where the questions and prompts we put to superintelligent AI, and their ethical and aesthetic quality, will be of prime importance.

How best to formulate those questions? Yes, that might well imply hours in a phone-free classroom, doing the kind of humanities that help develop a child’s purpose and vision.

Yet it might also involve making memes, resonantly and idealistically, rather than just taking them from exploiters and controllers. It could mean a “modern studies” that shows where power really lies in information society – and suggests other social arrangements that could bring democratic will to bear on Big Tech.

The kids in our back seat seem just as much fizzing bundles of energy and inquiry as my own children did, and as I was with my media.

Perhaps we adults should concentrate more on cleaning up our own systemic messes first – for their sake.