At lunch time, Mia* and her friends talk to each other. The year 11 student at the Newtown High School of Performing Arts uses her phone mostly to message friends. She has a tracker on her device to monitor her time on social media, which she limits to 30 minutes a day.
Sometimes in class, she will use her phone to take a picture of notes or instructions on the board. But during lunch at school, she chats with her friends.
“No one’s really on their phones,” she says. “Sometimes you’ll see people on their phones at lunch, but usually in a group of people, they’re talking to each other.”
Her father, Peter*, describes Mia’s phone use as “quite frequent”. But he is sanguine about its impact on her generally. “They do interact a lot through the phone, but I don’t see it as taking away from other interactions,” he says. “I don’t think her social skills suffer from using phones or social media. It’s just a tool, and not necessarily a worse tool than other ways of communicating.”
Peter’s confidence, however, is not widely shared.
Following this week’s announcement of a ban on mobile phones in Victorian state schools, effective 2020, the federal education minister, Dan Tehan, met his state counterparts in Melbourne on Friday to push for a nationwide block.
A study by Monash University has found that 80% of Australians support a ban.
“When I talk to parents and teachers, the overwhelming majority want action on banning mobile phones in the classroom,” the minister said in a statement. “They see mobile phones as a distraction from learning and are also worried about cyberbullying and other inappropriate uses.”
The picture painted by Tehan is one echoed by educators around the country. The Australian Education Union’s Victorian branch, which provided tentative support for the state ban, describes smartphones as a facilitator of cyberbullying and a “major distraction”, affecting academic performance.
The Australian Secondary Principals Association (ASPA) president, Andrew Pierpoint, says principals constantly report that students are sitting in playgrounds busy on their phones and not speaking to one another.
Newington College, a private boys school in Sydney’s inner west, banned phones last year. Its headmaster, Michael Parker, says he has had frequent conversations with teachers in previous schools who were concerned about the ubiquity of smartphones and the impossibility of monitoring their use.
After instituting the ban at Newington, he says, staff noticed an immediate increase in students’ engagement with each other.
A decade ago, says Parker, the noise around smartphones was very positive. But things have changed following more research into the dopamine surges released by social media activity, and greater understanding about the development of adolescent brains.
Parker says it is important that teenagers spend their formative years engaging in discussion, kicking a ball around, free from the constraints and distraction of phones and social media.
He acknowledges that the problem of smartphone misuse is not limited to young people, but says adults have a duty of care to limit their potential misuse.
Pasi Sahlberg, a professor of education policy at Sydney’s University of New South Wales, has attributed the decline in academic performance of students globally to rise in smartphone usage. While there is no research yet to substantiate that claim, he says there is a wealth of evidence to show that smartphones have a significant negative impact on wellbeing.
Adults ‘suffer the same disease’
However, he is not in favour of a blanket ban. “We have a broader problem in society,” he says. “We adults are patronising kids when we suffer the same disease … It’s almost like an alcoholic saying: ‘Everyone else has to stop drinking, but not me’.” This hypocrisy doesn’t wash with students, he says.
He wants a more collaborative approach in setting the parameters on phone use in schools. “I trust young people much more than adults on this issue,” he says.
Neil Selwyn, an education professor at Monash University, says that while bans are in place in France and Ontario, Canada, there is no way of knowing at this stage whether a state or country-wide ban will have any impact on cyberbullying, academic performance or students’ wellbeing.
A study from mental health non-profit organisation Headspace found this week that 53% of teenagers had experienced some form of cyberbullying.
“There are lots of concerns about cyberbullying, about students not paying attention. These are genuine problems. But phones are a kind of easy fix. It’s much easier to ban devices rather than tackle the root causes of a behaviour like bullying,” Selwyn says.
“Clearly, taking a device out of the classroom is not going to stop cyberbullying, because most cyberbullying takes place outside school hours and off school premises anyway. In some ways, it’s a symbolic act.”
Selwyn says that if he wanted to tackle cyberbullying, he would work with a class of students with their phones, discussing respectful communications and alerting them to triggers. “You can’t do that without the devices,” he says.
“A lot of the discussion is about schools which have banned it, which are predominantly middle class, well-resourced schools. A ban might work brilliantly for them, but it might not work so well for a school in a different situation,” he says.
Source: The Guardian