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Phone Ban in NSW High School Classrooms

On April 3, 2023, the NSW Government announced a state-wide mobile phone ban in high schools. What are the changes and how will they affect students and parents?
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In recent news from NSW, the new Labor State Government under Premier Chris Minns has announced that from term 4, phones will be banned in high schools—including at recess and lunchtime—bringing standardisation to what has up until now been a school-level decision. 

While the Government can be commended for engaging with the concerns of teachers and parents around the state, the issue, like most other educational directives, remains contentious.

NSW high school phone ban in action

New South Wales follows South Australia, the Northern Territory, Victoria, and Western Australia in implementing a statewide phone ban, and is consulting with various schools on how it can best be achieved. This may take the form of lockable pouches and lockers, or alternatively, it may involve having students hand their phones in at the office or simply keeping them in their school bags. 

While jamming technology—as used in supermax prisons—was initially floated as an idea, it has now officially been discounted by the government. 

Another thing to note is that while this is a general ban for all students, there will be considerations made for students with health issues and disability, and older students who act as caregivers for younger siblings.

Implications of banning mobile phone use at school

With such a broad policy affecting so many students, there are a range of things to consider. While the Government and those in support are keen to highlight the positives, other arguments point to the difficulties in enforcing such an order.

Face-to-face interaction

The emphasis on groupwork and socialisation is what sets Australian schools apart from peers in the Asia-Pacific region. Banning phones at school doesn’t get rid of all technology at school, but does go some way to promoting offline interaction, both in the classroom and playground. 

Concentration and engagement

In introducing the policy, Chris Minns said, “I know a lot of adults who find it difficult to concentrate when a mobile phone is in front of them, so I don’t know why we expect children to have that kind of discipline in them.” This ban aims to take away sources of distraction for students, increase engagement, and make the job easier for teachers to do their job—without having to monitor whether students are on their phones.

Less cyberbullying

While cyberbullying can’t be eradicated simply by taking phones out of the classroom and playground, it at least allows students to go throughout their school day without online harassment. 

Reduction in social media harm

Social media can be a point of connection for many, but it has also been linked to feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and depression among those who use it excessively. Having an enforced break can allow students to reset and live in the present moment, concentrating on their schooling.

Enforcement issues

Without a strong coordinated policy from the school, including consequences that are consistently followed through on, enforcement may fall to teachersadding to the growing list of responsibilities they are required to undertake.

Money better spent on school resources

Dr Joanne Orlando, a digital expert at the University of Western Sydney quoted in the Guardian, questioned the amount of money that would be spent on things such as phone pouches, saying that money could be better spent on educational resources. This rings true for schools that don’t get a huge proportion of Government funding, but nevertheless have to support students from varied backgrounds and with complex needs.

The parent and student view

Explaining the rationale behind the ban, the state government claims that parents are anxious about social media use in class, and in a media release, references Condell Park High School, which has had a successful ban in place—supported by the P&C and parents—for 16 years. 

This support from parents does indeed seem to be strong, with a petition on banning mobile phones at recess and lunch, started in 2022 by NSW parent Rachel Chappel, amassing over 25,000 signatures to date. However, as with any issue, there have been dissenting voices. 

One issue that has been raised is that parents wouldn’t be able to readily contact their children, whether that be in an emergency situation, or simply when trying to coordinate fast-changing after school plans. 

Other parents say that for their children who don’t have any friends or feel anxiety in the playground, a mobile phone can provide a safe space or a respite from loneliness. This argument seems logical enough, but is countered by Dr Danielle Einstein, a clinical psychologist at Macquarie University, in a recent article for the Sydney Morning Herald. She says that when phones are used as a form of escape, they can reduce our compacity to endure negative feelings and limit the formation of strategies that build a person’s resilience.

Pushback from some students

There has been no wide-ranging consultation from young people, so it’s hard to get a sense of the overwhelming mood. Anecdotal evidence from some students supports the ban, and of course, many schools already have phone policies in place, meaning for many, this new statewide policy won’t change anything. 

That being said, a recent article in Crikey interviews students who say that the ban doesn’t account for the fact that phones are a part of learning. Similar to their parents, arguments are also made in favour of having phones in case of an emergency, or to reduce anxiety in the playground. 

The enforcement issue is another one that is brought up, with students saying the ban can be circumvented through smart watches and other devices, or by simply bringing in a second phone.

Improvement in results?

Many of the arguments for and against the mobile phone ban come from concerns over practicality or fear of worst-case scenarios, but one of the main positives put forward by those in favour is that getting rid of mobile phones in class will lead to an improvement in results. 

Intuitively, it sounds like a no-brainer; students aren’t distracted and have a greater capacity to study more productively. But, what does the research say? A 2021 article in The Conversation by Carleton University’s (Canada) assistant professor of economics, Louis-Philippe Beland, asserts that the benefit of banning phones is backed up by the evidence.  

Drawing on his own paper from 2015, Beland shows that the rise in performance for school cohorts without phones is comparable to five additional school days per year, or an additional hour per week spent studying. Benefits are most dramatic among low-achieving students, with the top-performing children seeing a negligible difference in terms of learning outcomes. 

Meanwhile, an empirical study from Sweden published in August 2020 showed the opposite. According to the research: “In Sweden, we find no impact of mobile phone bans on student performance and can reject even small-sized gains.” 

Considering phone technology is improving and the way we relate to our devices and technology in general is constantly changing, more research should be conducted and subsequently used to make proper evidence-based decisions.

Digital literacy: going beyond the classroom

The subtext of the argument for banning mobile phones in high schools is that students can’t be trusted to do the right thing. If this is so, banning phones in school is just a band-aid solution, failing to address problems that occur outside school hours and inadequately setting students up for life in the workplace.  

Dr. Joanne Orlando says that digital literacy should be an area of focus, teaching young people to best manage their phone time. Whether the ban is temporary or ongoing, the teaching of digital literacy should definitely be a constant, allowing the next generation to safely navigate the online world.

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