phone ban school
(Image: DGLImages/Getty)

Victorian public schools are set to ban mobile phones from 2020. But you know this by now. The news was announced at the end of last month to much celebration. 

It will “help reduce distraction, tackle cyberbullying and improve learning outcomes”! It should be implemented in private and Catholic schools! If it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for kids today! Phones are “poisonous crucibles” and we should all learn to hate them!

The idea behind the move is a familiar one: teenagers are addicted to their phones and not socialising, spooky technology is evil. It’s the same proposition we’ve seen time and time again, and it leads to the same question: has anyone writing these policies — or writing about these policies, for that matter — ever actually met a teenager?

Reality check

Firstly, if a teenager wants to use their phone, they’re going to. Unless you want to introduce random stop-and-frisks in high schools  — wait… Emma Alberici actually does want to do this — you’re ultimately just teaching teenagers to be sneakier.

Technology continues to get smaller and easier to hide, and the policy of banning phones doesn’t account for so many other options available to teenagers. Are we banning smartwatches as well? What about computers and graphing calculators? Most graphing calculators can run Tetris, the game so addictive it has a syndrome named after it.

It all rests on the idea that phones can’t possibly be used as an educational tool, which is wildly outdated. You can often learn more from an hour reading online or watching tutorials than you can learn from three hours listening to a teacher explain the same topic to a class of 30 others. If you fall behind in a topic in class and need further help, it can often be helpful to look it up yourself on a phone at lunchtime than to continue falling behind for weeks. But don’t just take it from me: many teachers are saying the same thing.

Phones and the internet could never replace a school, but disqualifying any beneficial effects they have rather than utilising them is shortsighted and backwards.

And yes, eliminating cyberbullying is an important goal — but we can’t shove our heads in the sand just because it’s no longer happening in school hours. Victorian Minister for Education James Merlino said, “by banning mobiles, we can stop it at the school gate”, but cyberbullying is still harmful when it’s happening at home. If there are not enough support services for teachers who are struggling to help students, that’s an issue for the Department of Education to address directly.

The last argument for banning phones in schools is that it will increase socialisation; that too many teenagers have their heads stuck in a phone and aren’t talking to each other. It’s likely more accurate to say the nature of social interaction has changed, and young people have simply kept up with that. Even if we accept that the government knows better — that they know how people should really be socialising — introverted people aren’t going to suddenly become social butterflies once you take their phones away. 

What’s actually missing

The frustrating thing is high schools are the perfect place to start learning about online safety: how to identify fake news and hoaxes, how to protect your private details, the importance of critical thinking online, how to handle online abuse and deal with all the other dangers we face online. Programs like eSmart and Cybersmart Access are a great start, but they’re the bare minimum of what’s required to successfully navigate an online space.

Claire Lilley, from The UK National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said it best: “We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but we can talk to our children about this issue”.

As well as providing traditional education, schools are where young people learn social norms and figure out what’s ahead of them in adulthood. Social media and the internet is a vital part of our world now, and we’re not doing our jobs if we let young people leave high schools without a basic understanding of it. 

Honestly, it’s bizarre that we’re still having this discussion. Technology is just technology; it doesn’t have an agenda, and it’s not going to warp those frail teenage brains irreparably just by existing. We need to teach everyone, not just teenagers, how to appropriately and safely use the technology if we ever want the internet to be more than just pyramid schemes and horoscope memes on Facebook. 

Then again, as the Victorian government and many in the major media outlets would have you believe, maybe it’s just my phone-addled youth brain talking. 

Cai Holroyd is a student, writer and broadcaster. He is the co-editor in chief of The Swanston Gazette and is a regular contributor at Doublejump.co. He is on Twitter @Cai_Holroyd.

Peter Fray

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