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Inside Italy: Banning mobile phones in schools and why Italians aren't having more kids

Clare Speak
Clare Speak - [email protected]
Inside Italy: Banning mobile phones in schools and why Italians aren't having more kids
Pope Francis on stage at the Italian General States of Birth conference on May 10th, 2024 in Rome. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

In this week’s Inside Italy review, we look at how Italy's government and the Catholic church are joining forces to urge Italians to have more children, and whether Italy could bring in a ban on mobile phone use in schools - or does it already have one?

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Italy’s stati generali della natalità or 'General States of Birth' conference kicked off at the end of this week, the annual meeting at which pro-life lobby groups and self-described ‘ultra-Catholic’ conservative politicians come together to debate solutions to the problem of the country’s nosediving birth rate, which hit a record low in 2023 after 15 years of decline.

Pope Francis was, as always, the main speaker at the event. On Friday, he pointed to “selfishness, consumerism and individualism” as reasons for the falling number of births in Italy, adding that young couples have “no lack of cats and dogs” - something he has famously complained about before.

But he also recognised that the issue is closely tied to Italy's economic prospects and what he called a “lack of hope for the future”.

Polls have shown for years that plenty of young couples in Italy would like to have at least two children, but often feel they can't: financial security (in the form of stable employment contracts, for example), and practical support (such as adequate childcare provision) remain out of reach for far too many.

To reverse the trend, “effective policies are urgently needed,” and governments must commit to making “courageous, concrete and long-term choices,” Francis said.

Many had hoped that Italy’s first female prime minister would be the one to make such choices. But so far, while Giorgia Meloni’s administration talks a lot about being pro-family, it has missed opportunities to begin to address the root causes of Italy’s low birth rate.

Most measures for families in the 2024 budget were aimed at those who already have two or more children and are on a low income - but there was little support for those who are unsure whether they can afford to start a family at all.

And the government’s move to increase VAT on nappies and infant formula this year could be seen as sending the wrong message altogether.

KEY POINTS: What is Italy’s government doing to help families?

Meanwhile, Meloni’s government uses rhetoric about traditional, Catholic family values to justify cancelling the birth certificates of children born to same-sex couples, and approving interference from the pro-life lobby at abortion clinics. In this climate, prevailing attitudes which have for decades pushed Italian women to choose between motherhood and work seem very unlikely to change.

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Now, the government is launching a Vatican-backed campaign to encourage at least 500,000 births annually by 2033 - the amount which is projected to prevent the Italian economy from collapsing in on itself. (Last year, Italy recorded 379,000 births.)

But it’s hard to see how this campaign could make a difference without major investment in transforming Italy into a forward-looking country with “hope for the future”, and while the discussion on the birth rate remains dominated by conservative, religious voices which only reinforce the societal status quo.

Anti-abortion activists hold a sign reading 'God, fatherland, family, what a wonderful life'. Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy party also uses the slogan 'Dio, Patria, Famiglia,' which was originally used by Mussolini. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

In other news, could Italy soon follow other European countries in introducing a mobile phone ban in schools?

It's something that has been debated on and off for a while now in Italy, and in January the government ordered that both teachers and students must be prohibited from using mobile phones in classrooms.

Confusingly though, the directive from Education Minister Giuseppe Valditara was not legally enforceable, nor was it new - he was in fact urging schools to follow a directive issued back in 2007, which in turn made reference to a 1998 law.

No penalties will be applied for schools failing to follow the rule, as Valditara said: "we are not introducing disciplinary sanctions, we are calling for a sense of responsibility."

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Unsurprisingly, this has led to uncertainty over whether Italy has banned mobile phones in schools or not. As in some other countries, it depends on the school, and many individual schools are now choosing to bring in restrictions.

France and parts of Spain have gone further and introduced laws banning mobile phones in classrooms, and other countries including the Netherlands plan to do the same, after the UN in 2023 urged more countries to restrict mobile phone use in schools and issued a stark warning over the negative impact of excessive use on mental health.

Speaking in January, Italy's education minister however seemed to have no such concerns.

He said a ban was needed to help restore teachers' authority and remove distractions in class - but there was no mention of tackling issues like cyberbullying, the teen mental health crisis, or rising rates of mobile phone addiction.

This isn't because Italy has no such problems - although the latest stats from the World Health Organisation show that Italy has among the lowest rates of bullying on the continent (Lithuania, England, Denmark and Latvia have the highest), online bullying among schoolchildren has become a problem here, as elsewhere.

There are increasing reports in the Italian media of all of these issues affecting young people in Italy. After all, Italy’s younger generations today are afflicted by the very same challenges as the rest of the globalised world.

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Speaking of mobile phone use, we'll leave you this week with a photo of Puglia regional governor Michele Emiliano playing Tetris on his phone.

He faced a possible vote of no confidence after a recent corruption scandal in his region, but the motion was dismissed - and the image, I think, illustrates how seriously Italian politicians tend to take the large number of no-confidence motions brought against them, seemingly just to make a point, and which (if the motion isn't rejected) they usually pass with ease.

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