‘You can spot the children who read books and aren’t on screens’: Waterford schools plan no-smartphone code for pupils

Primary schools say move prompted by pupils’ shortening attention spans and rising anxiety levels

Primary schools across Waterford city and county are planning to introduce a “no smartphone or social media” voluntary charter until pupils reach second level.

The move is prompted by concern among school principals in the area over rising anxiety levels, cyberbullying, early exposure to adult material online and shorter attention spans among pupils.

It follows a similar initiative in Greystones, Co Wicklow, where all eight primary schools and parents’ association agreed to a no-smartphone voluntary code earlier this year.

Triona Daly, principal of St Ursula’s Primary School in Waterford city, said more and more young children in her school were suffering from anxiety.


“I have seen first-hand that many of these issues are due to the influence of social media. Many primary schoolchildren don’t yet have the emotional maturity to deal with the pressures that social media bring,” she said.

“Over the last few years, primary schoolchildren are presenting with issues that were previously deemed to be more ‘teenage issues’. Self-harming and cyberbullying are just some of the problematic issues we’re dealing with on a regular basis.”

The charter aims to ensure primary school pupils do not have access to social media, smartphones or age-inappropriate video games in a move designed to allow children “to be free to be kids”.

Teachers are also reporting a decease in attention levels in classrooms and say there is a notable difference between children who spend long periods of time on screens compared to those who do not.

“Some of the apps children are using encourage a very short attention span – they immediately move on to something else,” Ms Daly said. “We would notice it in class. You can see the children who read books: their literacy levels and concentration levels are higher… Children who are more on phones aren’t able to attend to their lessons as long as the other children.”

Dr Brian Barron, principal of Portlaw National School, Co Waterford, said he was very concerned that pupils were becoming inactive and sedentary by spending too much time on screens each day.

He said this was leading to lower levels of ability to perform basic motor skills such as holding a pencil or throwing a ball.

“With social media we are exposing our children to often inappropriate and troubling content that they are just not ready to negotiate,” he said.

Under the plans, each school in Waterford will work with parents to help them make the decision to not get their child a smartphone or access social media.

Dr Barron said it was very difficult for parents to say no, especially when other children in the class had phones and were on social media.

“Our hope is that this charter will encourage parents to start a conversation among themselves and to empower them to draw a line for their children,” he said.

He added that the charter was not anti-technology for children.

“It is very specifically about smartphones, social media and age-appropriate video games,” he said.

Barnardos national policy manager Steven Moffat said Barnardos supported the campaign, which is due to be officially launched by primary schools in Waterford next week.

“It is in children’s best interest, in terms of development and wellbeing. Most children in primary school are below the age limits required for social media platforms,” he said.

Minister for Education Norma Foley has also signalled she would support a no-smartphone policy across all primary schools.

From September 1st, each primary school in Waterford is being encouraged to display the new charter and invite parents to sign up and display it at home.

“We’re hoping to launch this initiative when we return to school, but we are realistic,” said Ms Daly. “We’re not asking parents of children with phones to get rid of them, but it is about getting buy-in for younger children and waiting until they are ready for them.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent