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Phoney war

The woman aiming to wean young people off their addiction to digital devices

12 February, 2017 — By Gabe Evans

Kentish Town filmmaker Erin Cotter

IT is an issue parents today know all too well – offspring who seem to spend their entire lives with their eyes glued to their smartphones.

As our dependence on technology shows no signs of slowing down, a growing body of research is looking into the effects it has on us, from sleep deprivation and internet safety to DIY empowerment offered up by platforms such as YouTube.

Whatever your views on this technology, there can be no denying that our lives are being fundamentally altered by it. For many parents, this means coming to terms with the presence of an uninvited guest at the dinner table, as children message their friends, send Snapchats, and gawp at Instagram pages.

With this in mind a school-based initiative, The Reconnect Project, has been set up by Kentish Town filmmaker and mother of twin “screenage” daughters, Erin Cotter. The project – which has run at 10 schools over the past two years and is backed by the Wellcome Trust – encourages young people to consider how, why and when they use their devices.

Last term 125 pupils at William Ellis school in Highgate Road were challenged to ditch their phones for seven days. This marked the end of the six-week project of hour-long weekly lessons in which the Year 8 students were asked to reflect on some of the complex issues associated with today’s digital culture, from building an identity online to the manipulative function of algorithms and data sets.

Students were then challenged to either stave off completely or significantly reduce their screen-time in the penultimate week.

“When they have their time off they really start to respond to the simplest things,” says Erin. “Sitting around with family, just going out with friends and phones being off, eye contact, laughing. A lot of young people just aren’t experiencing those things because they’re caught in an algorithm which is getting more and more sophisticated.”

Year 8 William Ellis pupils who have been involved in the Reconnect, from left: Mosef Bali, Gabriel Kerstan, Nino Adom-Malaki, Freddie Cendrowizc and Jeremish Kuroko

“They’ve responded really well,” said RE teacher Mark Semmens, who has been managing the project at William Ellis. “These boys are digital natives. They haven’t necessarily had the chance to properly think through or talk about their experiences.”

At a meeting for parents, the attitudes shared by the pupils who went seven days without their phones, computers and games consoles were varied. While Gabriel Kersten, 12, explained how his endless reading of manga comics on his phone before bed has caused him to develop “half-insomnia”, Nino Adom-Malaki, also 12, said he preferred to play football with his friends.

Gaming was the main distraction for boys, while girls tended to spend more time on social media. “I’ve seen my brother disappear into his room and he doesn’t come out for 15 hours,” said Jeremiah Kuruko, 12, who told the meeting he was keener on books than digital technology.

“When you go on screens and games it just engrosses you in the screen-world. You can’t get off it and go do other things,” said Freddie Cendrowizc, who said he spent “a lot of time” on YouTube. “This week has taught me that you can still find other stuff to do and it will be more healthy.”

Erin is keen to emphasise that Reconnect is not negative towards technology, but rooted in the idea of balance. The project asks students to become aware of their dependence on digital devices and take an active role in setting a healthier equilibrium between “online” and “offline” activities.

With research showing that young people aged 5 to 16 spend an average of six and half hours a day in front of screens, it is an understandable cause of concern for parents. But it’­s a difficult relationship to manage. When homework is set on the computer how do you control what else your children do online? Is it better to have them “safe” at home in front of a screen or playing out on the streets? One parent highlighted the lack of youth club opportunities available for young people today, making the hours between school-ending and parents getting home from work particularly difficult to control.

Perhaps the solution to a healthy digital existence lies in the hands of young people themselves, helped by engaging in education projects such as Reconnect. Monsef Bali, 12, said it is a question of using technology wisely. “If we find the balance,” he added, “I think it’s going to be OK.”

William Ellis is now one of three schools taking part in new research into the digital attitudes of up to 2,000 young people run by Reconnect in collabora­tion with Nottingham Trent University.

• More details on the project at


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