Should schools ban mobile phones? Five experts give their opinion, and the answers may surprise you.

commissioning editor, Education

The Conversation

NSW Minister for Education Rob Stokes has ordered a review into phone use in schools. He said the review would look at the risks and rewards of social media. The review will ultimately decide whether to ban mobile phones in NSW schools.

Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg also recently said he believed mobile phone-related distraction is a main reason for Australia sliding down in PISA rankings.

Parents and teachers have similar concerns about cyberbullying and safety, as well as technology distracting from schoolwork. But do the benefits of having phones in classrooms (such as contact with parents, access to mental health text lines, and learning opportunities) outweigh the risks?

We asked five experts if schools should ban mobile phones in classrooms.

Four out of five experts said no. Their responses below:

Danielle Einstein, psychologist YES

“First, mobile phones are too easily used at the expense of face-to-face communication. Teenagers can message, avoiding a more challenging conversation. Second, smartphone apps and messages prompt dopamine release, creating addiction. Third, the mere presence of one’s phone consumes attention even when it’s not being checked. It’s been shown we have reduced working memory capacity and fluid intelligence when our phone is upside down, silent on our desk compared to when it is in another room.

Finally, the introduction of smartphones has led to a decline in people’s ability to cope with uncertainty. Research shows being uncomfortable with uncertainty is associated with students feeling distracted and tense during NAPLAN and other tests. The more uncomfortable young people are with uncertainty, the higher the number of co-occurring psychological problems they report experiencing. Smartphone use is associated with the current epidemic of anxiety and depression.”

Matthew Kearney, Teacher Educator NO

“Firstly, regardless of any ban, school students will continue to learn with their own phones off-campus, later in life in their tertiary education, and in their professional and workplace learning. Secondly, if school students want to investigate, collect data, receive personalised and immediate feedback, record media, create, compose, or communicate with peers, in and beyond the classroom, then using mobile apps is ideal.

Also, if they want to learn at a place, time and pace of their choosing, for example on excursions, or working on projects with friends in more informal spaces like home, on a train or in Facebook groups, then mobile devices are needed.”

Joanne Orlando, Technology and Learning NO

“We should not ban mobile phones in schools because it’s important to educate children to live well in the era in which they are growing up. A good education for students today is knowing how to use technology to learn, communicate, and work with ideas. There is significant research (including my own) that shows selective, quality and empowering uses of technology provides new learning opportunities and the ability for students to develop skills they will need for future careers. The ability to copy work off the blackboard into an exercise book is not a skill today’s employers are looking for.

Banning students from using smartphones is a 1950’s response to a 2018 state-of-play. Mobile phone use is a complex social activity and taking phones away will likely lead to underground and hidden use by teens. This will exacerbate issues (such as cyberbullying) this call to ban phones is trying to address.”

Damian Maher, ICT educator NO

“Mobile phones serve many important functions. Digital literacy is a critical aspect of young people’s schooling and research shows mobile phones can play a role in supporting such learning. It’s important students learn with these devices so they can effectively participate in the workforce.

The phones provide a link between students and their parents, which has an important role to play in ensuring their safety. Evidence indicates parents want this type of access. Teachers have an important role to teach students to be safe online.

In relation to health, research shows medical apps are important to support the health of young people, such as managing diabetes, and apps need to be accessed during schools hours. Rather than suggesting bans, we should be discussing ways to support young people to use their phones.”

Susan Sawyer, Paediatrician NO

“Mobile phones are now ubiquitous for secondary school students. Beyond the 3Rs, an important aspect of learning for secondary school students is about safely negotiating online environments. This means all schools need to develop policies around the use of mobile phones during school hours. Given the dynamic nature of the mobile world, regularly engaging students and parents in reviewing and revising these policies is an important part of everyone’s learning.

A particular benefit of mobile phones is they can provide access to therapeutic interventions for distressed young people while they are at school. Telephone support lines have long provided crisis support but are more commonly used outside school hours. The emergence of crisis text lines means adolescents can access text messaging support in real time, an approach that many find more accessible than telephone support, let alone face-to-face support, even with trained professionals at schools.”

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  1. A a teacher, I agree that “banning” mobile phones is not the answer. However, there needs to be a far greater restriction enforced on their use. How often does a student claim they can’t do research on their phone because they “don’t have any data”?? Yet they seem to be constantly using social media sites? My favourite quote for phone use is “if only they would use them for good instead of evil”. In the classroom they are a major distraction from teaching and learning. Too many schools/principals and teachers are afraid to enforce school rules as too often parents insist that their child keep their phones on them 24/7…just in case THEY need to contact them. Until teachers are properly supported in their fight against misuse and abuse of these devices, they will continue to be a burden in the classroom far more often than they are a useful tool.

  2. The claimed benefits touted by ‘experts’ are minuscule in the day to day of teaching and learning. The damage to teaching and learning is large and it’s growing. The distraction is relentless, the battle with students is relentless over phones. As well as their education, they cause a lot of damaging social interaction, and a lot of anxiety. In my opinion, there is a large proportion of the cohort that really only care about the world that is going on on their phone and have no real interest in their own education. It is consuming them, and don’t pretend that it is my fault as a teacher for not ‘engaging’ them. Nothing I do engages them like their phone world does. Banning phones is the only effective way forward, as teenagers actually have insufficient self control (generally speaking, and as a group and a culture) to make any other measures effective.

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