smartphones in schools

Screen panic: how much time is too much?

Smart devices are powerful tools that can assist teaching and learning. Each device on its own is a personal assistant, a massive library, media creator, communications hub, language translator and entertainment centre on our desk or right in our hands. 

They can also cause harm. Adults worry about addiction, constant distraction and a technological dystopia full of obscure manipulative algorithms controlled by government or ‘bad guys,’ stranger danger, cyber vulgarity and toxic echo chambers. What are our teens really doing with the smart technology?  How do they cope with it? There is very little research into how our kids are using their devices from their perspectives, particularly when these tools were so heavily relied upon during lockdowns. So, last year, we asked them!

What is a smart device?

A smart device is an electronic tool (typically a watch, phone, tablet, laptop of desktop) connected (primarily) wirelessly to the internet. Smart devices allow users to interface with purpose-built applications to conduct business, communicate, create media, do banking, and more generally, text, email or talk to others in real time.

Our study

In Australia, nearly all adolescents ( 94 out of every 100 14-17 years of age) own a smartphone and many school communities have restricted their use or are exploring bans on phones at school. Teens must navigate rapidly changing cloud-based technology to negotiate their academic and social expectations and stay safe while doing this.

Educational challenges created by the pandemic created the most significant disruption to Australian schools since World War II. Schools became nimble and allowed the use of tools in ways that were not permitted before. Flexible assessment tasks gave students freedom to “figure it out.” Students connecting from home, were collaborating, creating, inventing, and studying from the patio or from the lounge. Parents and carers saw first-hand the pros and cons of the tools’ uses for school and non-school purposes.

Over the past year, we studied over 450 secondary public-school students in a mixed methods research project. The study took place in a capital city in Australia and involved students from 12 secondary schools. We have the initial survey results available now and the full results of the study will be shared as we finish the work later this year. 

How are our kids using their smart devices?

75% of students felt smart technologies improved their lives. This positive outcome was complex and diverse. One participant summed up their view on smart technology as:

The internet is where I spend most of my time. it is what I look at through my art and music, and the way it changed humans fascinates me greatly. it has enabled strange forms of connection from people all over the world and has enabled so much collaboration for me personally.” [sic] –  16 YO Male Year 10

Here’s what we’ve found so far:

  1. 21st century learners are on their screens constantly, learning now involves devices more than ever before. Screen time is up (during and after school) of those responses that were > 4 hours daily, the average time was 6.9 hours and the maximum number given was over 14 hours per day
  2. 89% of participants used their notebook computer device extensively for learning activities at school and more than half also use it for connected learning at home via the schools’ Learning Management System
  3. The phone isn’t a phone and not really viewed as one, only a very small percentage reported using their phones to make calls. It was clear in interpreting the data however, that smartphones are used in multiple ways to support their modern lives. These devices are seen as central to adolescent life. Smartphones are also a major focus of distraction. Our young people know this. They know when they are wasting their time. 
  4. Most young people socialise within friendship groups and have productive coping mechanisms and technical know-how in order to deal issues that may occur. They know how to block suspicious communication, report those interactions the provider and many are discussing these issues with friends, family or trusted school adults at school
  5. Our participants generally believed that there was marginal impact on school performance from their social media interactions (even if there are in the minds of adults); almost 20% reported that social media caused negative distractions and another 20% admitted to constantly checking these platforms and feeling anxious when they didn’t.

Now what?

We have a tricky tightrope to walk. What is the new normal? The 1980s’ guidelines of two hours a day of screen time has not kept pace with technological changes. We could do the following three things:

  1. We have an opportunity for us to tune in to adolescent voices on this issue. We should stay in touch with our own children’s use by talking to them. They want us to know they are trying to be careful, but this smart technology is part of their life.
  2. Parents also want to know how their children are using their devices. We can help and  support them to develop productive coping skills, so they successfully navigate a complex world of ever-evolving smarter technologies. 
  3. We need to model ourselves with our children balancing device time with a healthy lifestyle (particularly bedtime and sleep patterns).

The genie will not go back in the bottle. We can’t “ban” our way to the future as smart tools get smarter; we should trust that our young people, with our informed guidance, will make good choices. The importance of vigilance in using smart tools is crucial, but most of our participants are doing fine in their juggling act in and out of cyberspace. 

From left: John Fischetti is Professor and Pro Vice Chancellor of the College of Human and Social Futures at the University of Newcastle. He teaches and studies in the areas of school transformation and educational leadership. John advocates for school designs that promote student ownership of their own learning Simon Vaughan is a PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle. He is a secondary principal and national leader in school innovation. His PhD work is focuses on the potential of smart technology to transform pedagogy. Kylie Shaw is Professor and Dean of Graduate Research at the University of Newcastle. Her research focusses on the doctoral learning journey, future-focused skills and primary school pedagogies. She is a leader in empowering women to undertake and navigate the HDR journey.

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