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Parents push back against nation-wide mobile phone ban

Parental discontent was a theme that emerged last week when education ministers met at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to discuss both NAPLAN and mobile phone bans during school times, a move already planned for primary and secondary state schools in Victoria at the beginning of 2020.

Education ministers heard that parents, in particular, have reacted badly to phone bans in Victorian state schools, with one principal telling COAG that some parents needed to be “weaned” off the practice of calling or texting their child during school times. The principal of McKinnon Secondary College in south-east Melbourne, Pitsa Binnon, told education ministers that it has been much harder for some parents to stop communicating with their child via a mobile phone than vice versa.

“I’m sure kids will survive til they get home to find out what’s for dinner,” she said. Binnon added that when the ban was first announced she was virtually flooded with complaints and texts from unhappy parents.

“The reality is we need to be able to create a haven for students. They need to not communicate with their parents. And their parents need to not communicate with them. And some parents found it very challenging,” Binnon told education ministers.

“I think it’s really important for kids to come to school and be in this bubble for the period of the school day. It’s healthy and it’s about wellbeing for kids as they’re learning to just disconnect from their phones and to connect in other ways.”

But while some parents at McKinnon Secondary College see the ban as an unjust inconvenience, Binnon has seen positive changes in the student’ interaction in the playground, with noticeable increases in conversation and eye contact.

Education Minister Dan Tehan applauded Victoria’s move and urged other jurisdictions to act now in banning mobile phones. He later told reporters that evidence from Canada shows that banning mobiles in schools improves student performance by six per cent, equating to one hour of growth a week or five days a year.

Tehan also said that the improvement of low-performance students increased when mobile phones were removed from classrooms, although banning phones made no difference for high achieving students, according to Carleton University professor Louis-Phillipe Beland.

In June, the Media Centre for Education Research (MCERA) canvassed opinions about the merits of a mobile phone during school hours, with Australian academics at odds with Tehan’s findings. Associate Professor Amanda Third of Western Sydney University is an expert in digital, social and cultural research. While being consulted during the NSW review of phone use during school times, she stated a blanket ban had no evidence base and the responsible use of mobile phones in schools should be the focus.

“There’s a plausible case that could be made for restricting the use of mobile phones in primary school. But I am concerned that the evidence base is not there to show that secondary students will benefit from an outright ban,” said Third. “And I’m concerned that the ways these issues are reported only further stigmatise young people’s technology practices and fuels parental fears.

“In the meantime, we are overlooking the potential social and educational benefits of digital communication. We need much more nuance and sensitivity to diversity in our policy making and mainstream debate.

“The jury is out on whether banning mobile phones in schools will reduce cyberbullying. Indeed, recent evidence suggests that banning mobile phone use in schools can increase levels of violence among school communities.

“We need balanced approaches that support children and young people to mitigate the risks of harm while also creating the contexts in which they can access the enormous benefits of digital technologies. And we need to support teachers to better manage and make the best use of technologies in the classroom.

“Moreover, research shows that those young people who are most vulnerable online tend to be those who are most vulnerable offline, and we need to urgently focus attention on how to best support them.

“One size fits all strategies do little to address the challenges our most vulnerable young Australians face, and may even place them at increased risk of harm,” Third said.

Dr Natalie Hendry from Deakin University’s Faculty of Arts and Education researches the links between social media use and young people’s wellbeing. She believes no ban will ever “eradicate abuse or bullying. The effect of a ban depends on how, why and when students use their phones, and how schools try (or don’t try!) to understand young people’s digital cultures.

“Mobile phones mean different things to different young people: a tool for learning or messaging a friend for the page numbers for tonight’s homework; a safe space to scroll through reassuring or hilarious memes when feeling stressed out; an emotional weight urging you to check your email again for new abusive messages; a camera to photograph a delicious cake baked in Home Economics.”

Professor Marilyn Campbell, a leading expert on cyberbullying at the Queensland University of Technology, echoes other academics’ comments that a more nuanced, less mandatory approach is required.

“I think that mobile phone restrictions in schools should be entirely up to the principal and school leadership in consultation with their school community,” she said.

“There is scant evidence that restricting mobile phones in schools will benefit learning, stop cyberbullying and improve mental health. We also don’t know what could be the unintended [and] harmful consequences if we do so.”

For Associate Professor Matt Bower from Macquarie University, mobile phones are a potentially powerful learning tool and schools should make exemptions for learning activities that require mobile devices. Beyond this, Bower believes a ban is not ideal, and teaching students to self-regulate their use of mobile phones would be a far better option.

“A crucial part of recent changes to mobile phone policies is that the teacher usually has discretion to allow the use of mobile phones for targeted learning and teaching activities,” he said. “This is important because of the large range of educational possibilities that mobile phones enable, for instance using augmented reality and virtual reality, as well as a host of other educational apps.”

Finally, Swinburne University’s Associate Professor Therese Keane believes the “cellular functionality” available on other students’ devices will not have the intended effect of keeping students off the internet and social media.

“Students already have access to Apple watches that have cellular functionality (ie, phone and data), iPads with cellular that can override school networks. Therefore, banning mobile phones is not the answer,” Keane said.

“Students must understand it is inappropriate to speak on the phone whilst in class and this can be done through empowerment and classroom management. The policy actually should give greater authority to teachers to confidently use the technology to support the teaching and learning that takes place in the classroom such as taking pictures and videos and using virtual reality.”

However, while Tehan congratulated Victoria on the blanket mobile phone ban, he excoriated Victoria, NSW and Queensland for commencing their own reviews into NAPLAN, a move he characterised as “lacking leadership”.

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2 comments

  1. I worked in schools for over 40 years and there is no doubt that phones are causing a huge problem especially in secondary schools. I see many students who do not bring pens or books to class but only bring their phone! They then spend the whole lesson texting friends, their parents and who knows who else. These Professors who argue against banning them need to get into the real world ie classrooms and see what a major distraction to learning these devices are.

  2. Weapons of mass distraction. On any reasonable cost/benefit analysis they would fail to be a net contributor to learning across virtually every category of student other than perhaps the high achievers, where they might be neutral at best (hint: those students don’t get them out, they are too preoccupied with activities such as listening, reading, thinking, questioning, discussing and researching). It isn’t just about cyberbullying, which gets trotted out as if it is the only aspect needing consideration. It is the immersion many students have in their phone, as if it is the only conduit through which the world can be lived. When I have asked students who are clearly obsessed with their phones whether they would rather lose an arm through amputation or their phone, there is often a chilling hesitation before they ask: “which arm?” Hardly any wonder that NAPLAN results for Years 7 & 9 writing have declined during the concurrent advent and rise in student-owned mobile phones and then smartphones.

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