To ban or not to ban mobile phones in schools?

Once again, an Australian state, this time Victoria has banned mobile phones in all public schools, effective from 2020. In response to this contentious announcement, the federal education minister promoted the policy as a potential ‘nationwide block.’ 

Public opinion about this is mixed.  A recently conducted survey by Monash University found fairly positive attitudes to technology use in schools but the controversy appears to be directed at the devices students bring to school through the ‘One to One’ and ‘Bring Your Own Device’ policies — and this includes mobile phones. 

What do the experts think? 

Experts have weighed in supporting the use of smartphones as educational devices with others supporting a blanket ban due to their ability to distract the student from learning in the classroom, their interference in face to face engagement between students at break times and their facilitation of cyberbullying and other inappropriate uses. Research into the issue is limited and with mixed conclusions. Where state and nation-wide bans are in place in schools in France and Canada there is no clear evidence that it will have any impact on students’ academic performance, wellbeing or the prevalence of cyberbullying. 

As Professor Selwyn from Monash University 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.” 

Justin Patchin goes further.

‘More face-to-face bullying happens at school than cyberbullying. So, unless schools intend to ban students from interacting with each other at all, peer aggression will continue. Bullying is about relationships, not technology.’

The reason for banning smartphones is also based on the belief that they have become classroom distractions, but with students seemingly able to multi-task, understanding the nuances between educationally relevant and ‘off task’ behaviours adds to the complexity of the debate. Some educational research goes further and claims that the issues of distraction apply equally to laptops, iPads, tablets and other digital devices. Research undertaken by Prof. Selwyn and colleagues found ‘instances of students using smartphones for a range of beneficial purposes – from impromptu information seeking to live-streaming lessons for sick classmates.’

The Australian Secondary Principals Association President, Andrew Pierpoint says that smartphone policy decisions should be decided on a school by school basis. “Principals should be given the autonomy, working with their community and their P&C or P&F association, to work out what’s right for their community. For example, in a rural, remote and Indigenous community, the outcome of that conversation could be completely different from that in a large metropolitan school.”

What’s happened so far? 

In June 2018 the NSW Government announced a review into the benefits and risks of mobile phones in schools. Based on the findings of the review the government decided that the ban would only be enforced in primary schools and secondary schools would make their own decision.

It noted:

We recognise that technology plays an important and increasing role as students progress through their education […] We want to give secondary schools the flexibility to balance the benefits and risks of technology in the way that best supports their students.

With no overwhelming evidence to support the use or non-use of smartphones in schools perhaps the last word should come from the Office of the eSafety Commissioner: 

The reality is that we need to get better at dealing with the behaviours that manifest in online abuse, over banning the technology itself. We need to connect with our kids, rather than disconnect their devices.

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