As the Victorian government moves to ban mobile phones in public schools, we consider both sides of the smartphone debate.
We’re used to lively debates on the AEU Victoria Facebook page, but few topics have sparked more vibrant discussion than the announcement by the Andrews government that mobile phones are to be banned in public schools from January 2020. While a majority of commentators welcomed the announcement, many felt the ban was unrealistic, unworkable or a backwards step.
For the most part, those against the ban tend to take a pragmatic position – smartphones are here to stay and we should make the most of the educational opportunities on offer. Those for it argue devices are proving more of a distraction than an opportunity – and while there are some benefits, these are outweighed by potentially damaging side-effects for behaviour and wellbeing.
Cameron Denham, assistant principal at Narre Warren South P-12 College, is firmly anti-ban. He’s seen firsthand how helpful it can be to have internet access easily available, with smartphones offering a more practical and affordable option than laptops or tablets for some students.
“Probably 80% of what I want my students to do in a maths class, they can comfortably do on a phone,” says Cameron. “At the beginning of each year, I say to my classes: ‘There’s one of me and 25 of you, so that means if you put your hand up, you may be waiting a while. What other strategies do you have to get unstuck?’ One strategy is to google it.
“When I’ve been busy working with others, students can quickly jump on their phone to find a tutorial online so that they can get unstuck with a problem quicker. I’ve had senior students in VCE classes with the solution guide open on their phone, so they’re not having to bring three or four different textbooks to class.”
Students in his class know that they can use phones where appropriate, but inappropriate use will see them confiscated until the end of the lesson. He says that he’s seen little evidence that using phones leads to disengagement in the classroom (one of the main arguments for the ban), while exiling them means students are deprived of a vital, real-world resource.
“We talk a lot about preparing kids for the future and worlds of work, and the role technology plays in that future is a really important part of the education we should be providing.”
“We wanted to help students understand and manage their phone use, but they’re very addictive devices. They’re designed that way.”
As it is, some public schools will be unaffected by the new phone ban – because they’ve already put one in place. Since 2018, Daylesford Secondary College students have been locking their phones in specially designed pouches at the beginning of the school day, meaning they are inaccessible until the final bell.
McKinnon Secondary College made waves at the end of the previous year when it announced phones would no longer be welcome on the school grounds. Students weren’t happy with the decision but, as principal Pitsa Binnion explains, the school was actually responding to concerns raised by its student leaders.
“They said teachers were having trouble managing the constant disruptions caused by phones,” Pitsa says. “When we spoke to teacher groups, they said exactly the same thing – they were having difficulties with confrontations around phone use. When we met with parents to discuss what to do, they said, Be brave.”
McKinnon prides itself on being tech-savvy, with each student given access to a laptop, but it became clear that teenagers had a very different – and potentially damaging – relationship with their phones compared to their other devices.
“When we did our research and had experts come into the school, it was really apparent that phones have transformed our behaviour,” says Pitsa. “We wanted to help students understand and manage their phone use, but they’re very addictive devices. They’re designed that way. Research shows if they’re on your desk, even if they’re off, your mind is always moving towards them, checking to see if you have any notifications.”
Implementing the ban has involved a large-scale culture change. Part of the shift has entailed reminding parents to contact their children via the main office, instead of calling them on their mobiles. Pitsa said she spent a lot of time in the first few weeks wandering the corridors, hanging up on parents and confiscating phones.
“The policy was we’d take them. At first, we had a line a mile long at the end of the day. Students don’t like to be kept back after school, but I had 200 phones in the box.”
A year and a half later, there are a measly four phones in the box – not bad, given the school has a cohort of 2,224.
“Some children, to this day, still have to hand their phones in before school, because they have no self-discipline. They just can’t manage it. It’s not just children who are struggling with this; it’s all of us.”
Pitsa has seen the biggest change occur at lunchtime. “The thing I notice is that their heads are up. They’re socialising with their peers and conversing. It’s a real change. The noise level is very high in the yard, because they’re actually looking at each other and laughing.”
It’s this heads-down, anti-social behaviour that explains much of the anxiety about teenagers and smartphones. Parents and teachers alike are concerned that young people simply aren’t spending as much time talking face-to-face, with some studies indicating an associated spike in mental health issues.
McKinnon has used its phone ban as a springboard to employ mindfulness techniques, designed to help students focus on being in the moment, away from the relentless churn of social media.
“Young brains need nurturing,” Pitsa says. “All we can do as educators is create a haven, a bit of time out.
“I’m not saying they shouldn’t ever be on their phones, but during the school day we want them to engage with their teachers and their peers and build positive relationships. They can be on their phone as soon as that bell goes. And they are!”
“Why keep things the way they have been just because they’ve been that way for so many years?”
Cameron feels concerns about mobiles breeding anti-social behaviour tend to be overstated – and miss the key point that teenagers on phones often are socialising, just not in the way their parents did.
“That’s the evolving nature of our society. Why keep things the way they have been just because they’ve been that way for so many years?” he says.
“I actually don’t see too many students sitting on their phones at recess and lunchtime. There are some, but it will usually be a group of students who might be playing a game together or sharing something that they have on their phones. It’s very rare that I see students on their phones not engaging with other people.”
Cameron argues that taking away phones at lunchtime and recess, without providing alternate activities, is likely to cause more problems than it solves. “If we want the kids to be up and active, schools as much as possible need to provide open play spaces. I don’t think the solution is a ban on phones, because we’re taking away something that keeps them calm.”
Every school has different needs, he says, which means school leadership are best placed to decide which approach to phone use will work best for their cohort.
By way of contrast, Pitsa believes a state-wide ban will give schools the backing they need to deal with phone-related issues in the face of resistance from parents and students. “For me, it would have been easier had there been a policy in place. I think everyone will grapple with it in a different way. But having travelled this journey, I believe it’s in the best interest of every child.”