smartphone ban

Don’t ban smartphones in Australian high schools: here’s why (and what we can do instead)

The recent announcement that Gaming Disorder (impaired control over gaming) will be included as an official diagnosis in The International Classification of Disease, Eleventh Revision, followed hot on the heels of the announcement that the use of mobile devices in NSW schools will be reviewed. As quickly as we become enraptured by the possibilities of technology we start to question its place in (every crevice of) our lives, especially in the lives of our kids.

While smartphones may pose an unnecessary difficulty in primary schools, I believe the proposal to ban smartphones in Australian high schools would be a backward move that ignores key research. If there is potentially harmful activity, such as bullying, happening in schools, banning phones will most likely drive the behaviours further underground and perhaps into more devious corners.

It would be far more useful (albeit more expensive) for schools, to work in partnership with families and school communities, to improve the way social-emotional skills relevant to upstanding digital citizenry are taught. Digital citizenship involves understanding the rights and responsibilities that come with being online and how to use technology in a positive way.

Australia lags behind the United States in the way we champion digital citizenship and social-emotional learning in schools (two of the very few ways we do lag behind the US educationally). But it is these two key elements that have the combined power to address the current concerns in Australia surrounding ‘screenagers’ and the use of online technology. We’re catching up, but slowly.

Australia’s Digital Education Revolution and what was missing

A decade ago Australia was in the middle of a Digital Education Revolution in schools. Every student in Year 9 was handed a laptop with the hope that this would transform learning, and that high schools would suddenly start using information and communication technology (ICT) as quickly as a firewall could be hacked by a gamer keen to play World of Warcraft at lunchtime. The iPhone was in proverbial nappies, the iPad was still a prototype, and high-speed internet was something we were still hopeful to see in our lifetimes.

What was missing from the Digital Education Revolution back then, and what remains a largely gaping hole in most schools now, is a meaningful, authentic approach to effectively embedding digital citizenship and digital literacy into curriculum across subject areas and building digital intelligence across the education ecosystem (beyond students, to teachers and parents as well).

This means students learn skills for effectively navigating the digital space that they can apply right now in their lives, not bookmark for a rainy day, and that these skills are delivered as part of the conversation across all subjects, not just PDHPE.

To date Australia’s interpretation of digital citizenship in schools has largely been around addressing cyber safety and online-bullying (both important domains within the model). Usually we ignore or give scant attention to other areas such as digital health and wellbeing or preventing excessive use through teaching healthy technology habits.

There are indeed parts of our Australian national curriculum that offer an opportunity to address the self-regulation skills we fear young people are missing (and we’re perhaps losing as adults) but the direct connection with digital citizenship is usually not made or if made, not emphasised.

Our current panic over smartphones is based mainly on media ‘clickbait’

The moral panic over the impact of technology on young people’s cognitive and emotional functioning has reached new proportions in a Fortnite fixated, Instagram infatuated generation and the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) landscape in schools. It seems smartphones can be blamed for nearly all the woes of modern society, from the decline in PISA rankings to the spike in the youth suicide rate.

Sadly, most of what schools are reacting to is the media’s most alluring clickbait on the impacts of social media, video games and deceptive notions of ‘addiction’ to devices, rather than evidence-based research from published academics specialising in the area. The best current example of such good research is in UNICEF’s report on Children in a Digital World.

The report tells us the impact of digital technologies on mental wellbeing is U-shaped, meaning both no use and excessive use can have a small negative impact, while moderate use is associated with a small positive one. It is a far cry from headlines attributing a mental health crisis or obesity epidemic to digital device dependence. Additionally, the impact on sedentary behaviour is found to be inconclusive, and unpacking what constitutes ‘excessive’ use and therefore addiction was highly contentious. A crucial point raised is in the methodology used by researchers to ensure rigour in how studies are conducted around children in a digital world.

Alternatives to banning phones in schools

The personal-social capability in our national curriculum is our answer to the social-emotional learning that the US does so well. It offers the opportunity to teach young people discreet, valuable skills around what it means to be human in a digitally saturated age.

From managing your time (and understanding mechanisms around procrastination) in preparing assignments, to building the skills to complete group work effectively, this capability builds a range of skills we might associate with both emotional intelligence and executive functions. Skills range from recognising and regulating emotions, developing empathy and building positive relationships, to making responsible decisions and handling challenging situations – many of which have direct applicability to the issues regularly raised as concerns with young people online.

It is critical to provide young people (and their parents/carers) with the information and skills they need to make effective choices on how, where and when they use their phones, tablets, laptops or gaming consoles. It is also important to give students opportunities to practise, to make (modest) mistakes and therefore to learn from experience.

This means moving from the annual guest speaker on cyberbullying or eSafety, to make being a savvy, kind human online (and off) a central value of school policies. It involves crafting policies to be meaningful, accessible and relevant to students’ day to day living (rather than a document that is trotted out when a breach occurs).

Most of the wellbeing/pastoral care, BYOD/technology and anti-bullying (please someone come up with a better term for this!) policy templates I’ve seen need a major renovation. They need to include a scaffolding of skills required, as well as differentiation across stage levels, as students develop and grow in their interactions with society. They need to be living, connected documents that are reviewed by students (how many schools actively involve students in policy making decisions?) alongside school stakeholders.

So, a decade after the Digital Education Revolution, it’s time school leaders started a serious, substantial Digital Intelligence Revolution. I believe this needs to involve a holistic approach to the challenges of the digital era, where we work together as educators and communities on the social and emotional skills our students need alongside the responsible use of technology, rather than worrying about instilling fear or banning something.

I believe in 2018 we should be working more diligently on empowering young people to connect with their humanity as passionately as they currently connect with their devices.

Jocelyn Brewer is a Sydney based registered psychologist and NESA accredited teacher. She is completing a Masters of Applied Science (CyberPsychology) at the University of Sydney and is a member of Australia’s first formal Cyberspychology research group at the University of Sydney .In 2014, she received a NSW Premiers Teaching Scholarship to research issues relating to digital health and wellbeing. Her NESA endorsed course ‘Leading a Digitally Intelligent School’ will be offered in Semester 2, 2018. For more information about the course please contact Jocelyn. Jocelyn is on Twitter @JocelynBrewer