Ravenswood teacher Kate Barbat was worried; the playground was too quiet. Instead of being overwhelmed by the din of games and laughter, she would walk past hushed rows of girls hunched over smartphones.
“That became the new norm,” she said. So, once a term Ms Barbat would run “look up lunchtimes”, when staff set up painting stations, hula hoops and table tennis to lure the students from their screens.
It worked. Soon, girls were logging off and asking for frisbees and tennis balls. After a year, the school culture had changed so much that when principal Anne Johnstone proposed phone restrictions, students happily agreed.
“I love not having my phone,” says Elsie McCutcheon, 17. “Everyone is in the common room, everyone is talking. That’s what I’m going to remember from school.”
Victoria last week announced a ban on smartphones across primary and high schools, sparking a national debate about how best to navigate the technology’s impact on teenagers when most adults struggle to manage their own phone use.
NSW will roll out a ban on smartphones in government primary schools this year and let public high schools decide their own policies, but many independent schools have already restricted phone use and are happy with the results.
Since term four last year, students at Newington have had to put their phones in their lockers, and can only check them briefly at recess and lunch.
“Students are much more engaged with each other, they are talking, they’re playing games, and the temptation for that distraction in class is really removed,” said headmaster Michael Parker.
Parents welcomed the policy, although many of the boys were not as enthusiastic. “We keep talking to the students, looking at refinements, but our commitment to keeping phones out of their hands all day is solid,” Mr Parker said.
He worries about the addictive nature of phones. “The whole dopamine hit and all those things show that although they are not a drug, they share some characteristics with them,” he said.
“It is something that a school is right and proper to restrict or ban. I think they’re Spakfilla – there’s no gap or crack of time too small that you can’t fill it in with Instagram. It’s an experiment on a generation’s brains that I’m very nervous about.”
Newington students have had to make adjustments to their behaviour; they’re carrying printed timetables, rather than using their phones, for example. And some have invested in their first wristwatch because they can’t use their phones to check the time.
This was also an issue for Ravenswood: “We made sure we had more visibility of clocks,” said Ms Johnstone.
Tara Anglican School for Girls restricted phone use from the beginning of the year, to encourage relationships.
“We wanted the girls to speak with each other in their breaks,” said principal Susan Middlebrook. “We wanted them to involve themselves with each other and really listen to conversations and what everyone actually had to say, at length. The result has been a happy one for us. The school is more noisy and energetic at break times. There have been so many more benefits to this change than I could have imagined.”
Not every private school supports banning phones, however. At Wenona, principal Briony Scott is a firm believer in helping students manage the technology in their lives rather than taking it off them.
“Here’s a thought,” she said on Twitter last week. “If banning phones is the answer, then pass a law that makes it illegal to give or to buy one for a child under 18. If you really believe the device is the issue, be consistent.”
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald