France has declared its tech-addicted teens to be a matter of public health — and is trying to limit their access to mobile phones and social networks.
Draft legislation this week as part of a bill on data privacy proposes that French children under the age of 16 will need their parents’ approval to open an account on Facebook or other social networks such as Snapchat or Instagram.
It follows an announcement by Jean-Michel Blanquer, the French education minister, that mobile phones will be banned from next year in primary, junior and middle schools, a pledge that formed part of Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign.
Mobile phones are already prohibited in French classrooms but, from September, students will not be allowed to use them on breaks, at mealtimes or between lessons.
Both proposals found favour within the tech community in France. “I think it’s a sensible proposal to completely ban mobile phones in schools,” says Pia d’Iribarne, at Accel Partners, a venture capital investor. “Time that children spend playing on their phones is time not spent learning or interacting with their peers.”
But experts warned of the practical difficulties of controlling children’s internet and social media use.
“The dangers of the internet and social media for children include cyber addiction and bullying, desocialisation, sleep disruption and exposure to violence and pornography online,” says Pascal Lardellier, a sociology professor.
“However, given that children are more and more connected from a younger and younger age, it’s unrealistic and utopian to think that parents and governments can control the usage.”
Social networks such as Facebook already forbid users under 13 from signing up. But the French ministry of justice points to studies showing that young people aged 14 to 15 are most likely to put themselves in dangerous situations such as dubious online dating sites.
European regulation sets 16 as the age of consent for social networks but individual member states can set a younger limit: Britain uses the age of 13 years old.
France’s proposed legislation comes as Facebook is attempting to draw in even younger users by launching a messaging app for kids as young as six, which lets parents decide who their children communicate with.
YouTube, another popular site, has had to defend itself against allegations that it allowed inappropriate videos to be published on the site featuring children and sexualised comments.
Facebook has specific protections and safety parameters for teenagers between 13 and 17, and has taken part in several educational initiatives in France around topics such as cyber violence. People familiar with the group’s thinking say it believes restrictions on under-16s could have unintended consequences, discouraging safe education of younger teenagers.
The French education ministry is looking at how a mobile ban in schools might work and is expected to give more details next year. Issues include the logistics of schools having to store hundreds — even thousands — of phones securely or whether teachers need to search pupils for devices.
Mr Blanque believes that the time children spend staring at screens is a matter of “public health”.
“These days, the children don’t play at break time any more. They are just all in front of their smartphones and, from an educational point of view, that’s a problem,” Mr Blanque said to the Local, an English-language publication, this week.
Rachel Delacour, an entrepreneur who was this week elected co-president of industry body France Digital, said the solution required not just regulation but also better education. “We should promote children’s critical spirit and their ability to analyse and distance themselves from over-using their phones,” she said.
Get alerts on French politics when a new story is published