Mobile phones are ubiquitous in modern society and schools are in no way immune to the phenomenon. Across the world, from France to New York to Denmark, there has been ongoing debate about the impact of mobile phones being used by students during school hours. This discussion was reignited in Australia after Victorian Education Minister, James Merlino, announced that mobiles will be banned for all students in Victoria’s state primary and secondary schools. The Minister’s justification for the ban, to begin in Term 1 of 2020, is that it will reduce distraction in the classroom and cyber-bullying in the school yard. The only exceptions will be where students need to use phones to monitor a health condition or if the teacher gives students permission to bring mobiles into class for a particular purpose.
While there are compelling reasons in favour of removing mobile phones from schools, there are also good reasons for being cautious about instigating such a sweeping ban. Unlike government schools who must abide by Department policy directives, non-government schools can apply their discretion in relation to this issue. This article will consider both the benefits and risks of a mobile phone ban by examining some of the relevant issues, such as the impact in classrooms, cyberbullying and the potential effect on students with disabilities.
Impacts in the Classroom
Arguably the key argument raised in favour of banning mobile phones from schools, or at least from classrooms, is that they distract students and detrimentally affect learning. McKinnon Secondary College, a Victorian school which imposed a phone ban of its own accord, has reported that students have become more focused in the classroom and are performing better overall in the absence of mobiles. According to Dr Neil Selwyn, it is certainly true that the presence of phones in classrooms causes students to multi-task; some of this multi-tasking might be for educational purposes, but much of it might not be. However, the effect of these ‘off-task’ behaviours on student outcomes remains unclear, with a review of 132 academic studies concluding that it is “difficult to determine… the causal relations between mobile phone multitasking and academic performance”.
Opponents of school mobile bans also point out that smartphones can be a valuable educational tool. Given how pervasive technology is in our world, it makes sense to integrate digital devices into the classroom in order to enhance student learning. Indeed, research from Stanford University has illustrated that teachers can “build on the ways students already use technology outside of school to help them learn in the classroom”. For instance, teachers can use educational apps to make lessons more interesting for students, ultimately leading to greater engagement and retention of knowledge. Students can also use smartphones for educational purposes in more informal ways, such as by googling additional information when they are learning about a topic that interests them.
Another issue is that a blanket banning of phones in classrooms limits the ability of students to learn how to use their phones appropriately and responsibly. Sue Bell, president of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Schools, suggests that banning mobile phones means “taking away an opportunity [for students] to learn how to self-manage a device”. When young people leave school and enter workplaces, there will be no lockers in which they place their phones at the start of the day (which is the approach that is to be taken in Victorian schools). They will have to self-discipline and manage their phone usage on their own, which they are likely to be better at if they have a chance to practise it throughout school.
Lowering the incidence of cyberbullying is another commonly cited reason for preventing students from using their phones during school hours. Minister Merlino made this argument when he stated “[h]alf of all young people have experienced cyberbullying. By banning mobiles, we can stop it at the school gate”. Child psychologist, Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, similarly points out that “all schools have a legal obligation to provide a safe environment in which to learn” and that banning mobiles makes this easier to achieve.
However, it is worth noting that much of the cyberbullying experienced by young people does not occur during school hours or on school premises. In fact, part of what makes cyber-bullying so dangerous is that it can occur anywhere and at any time. Clearly then, the problem will not suddenly come to an end by preventing students from using their phone at school. Furthermore, there is a risk that teachers may invest less effort in looking for signs of cyberbullying among students, if there is an assumption that the mobile ban will largely deal with the issue.
Effects on Students with Disabilities
A point often overlooked in the mobile ban debate is the potentially stigmatising effect it will have on students with disabilities, as is highlighted in Roy and Buchanan’s article for EducationHQ. The Victorian ban on phones includes an exception for students who need the device to manage health issues. This is important for students with a disability, because mobile phones can be powerful assistive tools in their education. The problem with banning mobile phones generally, but allowing “preferential usage” for students with disabilities, is that it deprives those students of “invisible inclusion”.
Invisible inclusion, a concept discussed by Roy and Buchannan, occurs when a child who has challenges can partake in school without stigma and without having their diversity highlighted. When the presence of mobile phones is unexceptional in the classroom, a student with challenges can use the device to assist in their learning without their difference being obvious to those around them. For instance, a child with visual impairment can take a photograph on their phone and zoom in on the image, allowing them to read or comprehend the visual more readily. A child with dyslexia can utilise dictation and spelling apps to help with their written work. Yet, as soon as phones disappear from classrooms due to a mobile ban, one child being allowed to use a phone becomes obvious and there is a risk of them feeling alienated from their classmates. On these grounds, Roy and Buchannan assert that a “ban represents an ableist approach, which must be re-thought in light of the fact that phones function as a normalised, invisible and assistive technology”.
How Should Schools React?
There are many other contested issues in the mobile ban debate that could have been discussed in this article – from parents being concerned about not being able to contact their child directly during the school day, to the sheer practical difficulties of preventing young people from bringing mobiles to school. Clearly then, there is currently no consensus about the role that mobile phones should play in schools. Accordingly, it is important that schools develop their own mobile phone policies, which they believe will best serve their cohort of students. As more research and evidence becomes available, perhaps including the experiences of government schools in Victoria after the mobile ban comes into effect in 2020, schools can re-visit their policies and engage in an interactive process with students, staff and parents to determine the appropriate approach to the use of mobile phones for their particular school community.