Mobile Devices in Schools: Is Banning Connected Devices the Key?

13 September 2018

The New South Wales Education Department will look to a French schoolyard ban on connected devices as it considers age restrictions­ on smart phones, iPads and even digital watches in the classroom, as part of a landmark review. But, despite incidences of distraction in the classroom, social isolation and cyber bullying, experts have said that mobile phones can also play a part in supporting the digital literacy of students in schools, not to mention their health and welfare outside the classroom.

Ban on Connected Devices in France

When school started at the beginning of September in France, it was without any of the usual connected devices for students up to the age of 15. A new law bans students up to the age of 15 from using "all connected objects", including phones, tablets and smartwatches during the school day.There are exceptions in place for students with disabilities and for the educational use of devices in the classroom and in extra-curricular activities. French high schools, or lycées, with students 15 and older, can choose whether to adopt the ban for their pupils.

The French education code already bans the use of phones during teaching hours, a rule which has been in place since 2010. Alexis Corbiere, a former teacher, said the law was unnecessary because of the existing code, commenting that "in reality, the ban has already been made. I don’t know a single teacher in this country that allows the use of phones in class."

It seems, however, that the issue is not just about the use of connected devices during class time. Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has previously said the ban is a matter of public health because children are not playing during breaks anymore, "we know today that there is a phenomenon of screen addiction, the phenomenon of bad mobile phone use... Our main role is to protect children and adolescents. It is a fundamental role of education, and this law allows it."

NSW Education Department Review into Mobile Devices

NSW will look to the French schoolyard ban as it considers age restrictions­ on smart phones, iPads and other mobile digital devices in the classroom, as part of a landmark review announced this week by the NSW Education Department. The Terms of Reference for the Review into the non-educational use of mobile devices in NSW schools (Review) are as follows:

  1. "Conduct a review of evidence related to the benefits and risks of mobile digital devices, primarily smartphones, in schools for children and young people and approaches and practices to support students’ use of such devices in safe, responsible, and informed ways. This will include:
    1. An international literature review on the use and impact of mobile digital devices in all school settings – primary, secondary, Schools for Specific Purposes (SSPs) and Central Schools. This will include peer-reviewed scholarship from across disciplines and ‘grey’ literature (such as program evaluations and reports on evidence-based interventions).
    2. Stakeholder consultation and feedback via focus groups and other mechanisms.

    The consultation with children and young people will include when, how, and why they use mobile digital devices in order that the Review’s recommendations align with and can effectively and meaningfully impact their practices."

  2. "The Review will assess the extent to which having mobile digital devices in schools may contribute to or exacerbate identified risks, including cyber-bullying, image-based abuse, and access to online harm in schools."
  3. "The Review will identify how children and young people can best be prepared to mitigate identified risks."
  4. "The Review will identify best-practice approaches and practices for schools and parents to support students’ use of mobile digital devices in safe, responsible, and informed ways to promote learning and respectful relationships."
  5. "The Review will consider whether a restriction or other limits should be placed on smartphone use for children in primary schools or children in certain age brackets. The practices of other jurisdictions will be informative in this regard."

Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, a well-known psychologist and author, has been appointed to conduct the Review with the support of the NSW Department of Education. Other independent experts may also be commissioned to assist. The Review will be informed by public consultation and the views of students, parents, teachers, principals, experts (in the field of child development, cyberbullying, mental health and technology) and other interested community members. Submissions are currently open.

The Review will consider various models of smart phone management for children, including­ blanket bans, technology­-free days, time limitations such as 15-minute blocks for phone use as well as age limitations. It will also consider the link ­between digital devices and cyber bullying, sexting and access­ to online harm.

The end goal of the Review is to identify the best practice on how mobile devices should be used by students in a safe and responsible manner. Currently, individual schools are allowed to set their own mobile phone guidelines in all Australian states, even though research has shown that struggling students get better marks once smartphones are removed from schools. Dr Carr-Gregg said many schools were already managing the problem in their own way but there was no evidence to guide their decisions to determine what was best. As well as France, Dr Carr-Gregg said he would look to Albania where a ban is also already in place.

Current Practices for Mobile Devices

A study from youth advisory group Year13 found 89 per cent of Australian students had used their mobile phones in the classroom regardless of their school’s policy, and a report from the British Centre of Economic Performance found banning mobile phones in school improved students’ performance by more than 6 per cent. The Guardian asked five experts what should be done about mobile devices in Australia, after Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, also recently said he believed mobile phone-related distraction was a main reason for Australia sliding down in Pisa rankings. Out of the five experts surveyed, only a single one, a psychologist, suggested a full-scale ban was appropriate in schools to combat the rise of psychological problems associated with uncertainty, anxiety and depression that are thought to be linked to the overuse of connected devices. The other four experts indicated that mobile devices are a valuable learning tool, with schools taking a role to educate students in digital literacy, safety and new learning opportunities to develop skills students will need for their future careers.

Western Sydney University technology and learning researcher Dr Joanne Orlando said an outright ban on smartphones would not eliminate bullying behaviour and could have a chilling effect on students, particularly in high schools, “when I talk to teenagers about these sort of bans, they normally say something like ‘well, that just means I have to use my phone in a less obvious way'...It can lead to children being more secretive in their phone use and that means adults and teachers might not be made aware when things go wrong”.

Currently, all schools in Tasmania — government, Catholic and independent — decide their own mobile phone policies. One Tasmanian school, as reported by ABC News, has already instituted a classroom ban, with the principal saying he was "tired of dealing with cyber bullying and teachers were increasingly frustrated with disengaged students". However, a Catholic school in the same city has instead instituted a policy of "phones must be off and away", meaning students can take them to class, so long as they are neither seen nor heard.

This is evidently a complicated issue with a variety of views on the matter. It seems that the most common view is that personal devices (eg. mobile phones) shouldn't be permitted during class time unless they are being specifically used for an educational task. There is a difference between using a personal mobile phone during class time to check Facebook or Instagram and using a school tablet to research an educational topic.

What Schools Can do Now

The use of mobile phones and other connected devices is a fraught issue with no clear guidelines or evidence for schools on what is best practice or what they should be doing to best look after the welfare of their students. To start addressing the issue, schools need to develop policies around the use of mobile phones and other connected devices like tablets and smartwatches (for both personal and educational use) during school hours for both students and staff. As more research and evidence comes to light (such as the Review), schools should engage students, staff and parents in reviewing and revising these policies, as it will help schools have the most relevant and appropriate approach to the use of mobile technology for their own dynamic digital environment.

Lauren Osbich

Lauren is a Content Development and Legal Research Consultant at CompliSpace. She has over ten years of experience in legal research and legal publishing, working nationally across Australia. She studied at Macquarie University completing a Bachelor of Laws with an Honours in English, followed by being admitted as a solicitor of the NSW Supreme Court. Lauren is also passionate about giving back to the community through the not for profit sector as well as donating time to mentor and coach young lawyers in their professional development and finding time to also be a member of a not for profit Board.