French President Emmanuel Macron has delivered on an election promise to ban smartphones and tablets from the classrooms of all French students up to the age of 15 (see related article). Under the new legislation that will come into effect at the beginning of the new school year (September), students must either leave portable screen devices at home, or have them switched off all day if on school grounds. There are exceptions to the law for circumstances where a student may require access to a device (e.g. a child with a disability), and provision for possible pedagogical (teaching and learning) uses.
The question of whether we should consider a similar ban on portable screens in Australia hasn’t received a great deal of attention so far. The current Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, has made one or two public declarations that screens should be banned from classrooms, however the calls have been left echoing around the parliamentary chambers, unanswered and unactioned. Minister Birmingham cited the rise of cyberbullying and distraction from learning reasons for considering a ban. Is he on the right track? Yes, he most certainly is.
In Australia, 94% of teenagers have a smartphone. That means that virtually all of our teenagers are communicating online. Of primary school-aged children, two thirds have a smartphone or tablet. It’s certainly true that these kids are living in a different world, technology-wise, than any generation before them, but that doesn’t mean we should surrender them to it. If anything, it means we need to tread carefully, we are in uncharted waters.
Cyberbullying has been gaining some Victorian state political attention of late, though mainly as a means for the two dominant parties to appear to be ‘doing something about it’. One in four children/teenagers experience bullying at schools in Australia, and of those that reported having been bullied, one in three were bullied via online means. A report by Relationships Australia paints a bleak picture in Australian schools. In March this year (2018), Relationships Australia surveyed over 1,200 young people about their experiences of bullying. Around 65% of female and 53% of male respondents stated that bullying was a ‘big problem’ in their school, and over half of all respondents said that they were not confident that their school could successfully deal with bullying. Data from the 2018 Royal Children’s Hospital Child Health Poll indicated that 78% of reported bullying was verbal. A further 56% was social bullying, and 30% was online bullying. A massive 85% of all bullying took place while at school. It may be tempting to think that cyberbullying isn’t the biggest issue here, but think about how and when cyberbullying might take place. It’s at home, in private. The school day may be over, but the bullying continues well beyond the play ground. It follows kids home and keeps chipping away at their self-confidence and self-worth. Often without their parents knowing anything about it. That’s the problem with kids and screens, bullying is not ‘visible’ to anyone other than the victim. Smartphones let bullies keep on bullying, without any visual sign of the psychological hurt they are imparting on their victim.
In terms of distraction from learning, the research is pretty clear here. There is more and more evidence that teenagers in particular are sacrificing sleep time for screen time. Most of us know the detrimental effects to our ability to think clearly and concentrate when we are sleep deprived. For teenagers, the impact of continually missing out on sleep is hugely problematic. Developing teenagers (and children) need a lot of sleep. Not getting enough sleep can increase a teenagers risk of developing mood disorders (e.g. depression), becoming obese, and being at greater risk of traffic accidents (beyond the risks associated with inexperience), and alcohol and drug abuse. So when we are talking about smartphones impacting on learning, we’re talking about a lot more than just students paying more attention to Snapchat than to their teacher.
So should we be giving serious thought to banning smartphones in schools? I’ll leave you with this personal anecdote. We recently had two lovely 14 year old French exchange students over for dinner. They told us that they don’t use any technology in the classroom. Assignments are hand-written, and the teacher is always the focal point of the lesson. In comparison to the learning environment my same-aged step-son describes (daily lessons posted on Google docs, assignments completed on laptops, and smartphones and laptops the focal point of the lesson), I was forced to wonder if we are using technology for the sake of technology. One thing I can tell you, is that the French boys were running academic rings around the kids in their Australian classes. As Australia slips further and further down the OECD ranking for quality and inclusion education for children, I wonder if the French have already worked out that a lot of technology in the classroom isn’t necessarily the best way forward for our kids.