Thursday 19 September 2019

We need to be smarter about smartphones

A blanket ban on mobiles in school would be unworkable and counter-productive, writes Luke Saunders

Stock photo
Stock photo

Luke Saunders

The ever-present smartphone is the biggest single challenge facing the teaching profession and parents today when it comes to the education of children.

These devices are pervasive, distracting and, when used in a certain way, not conducive to learning.

As a teacher and parent, I've seen first-hand how potentially damaging they can be to teenagers and, occasionally, I yearn for a simpler time before emojis and WhatsApp notification beeps.

Our children's heads are stuck in their devices to the detriment of their learning and development of social skills, and we still don't fully comprehend the long-term impacts of such overuse of hand-held technology.

Is my judgment clouded by the fact I'm entering middle age? Possibly, but the facts don't lie. There is no denying smartphones are disruptive in the school setting.

So, armed with all that information and experience, why am I happy Education Minister Richard Bruton has avoided the clear temptation to place an outright ban of the noisy, annoying, intrusive rectangular nuisances?

Why do I applaud him for not providing every school in the country with a big box marked 'smartphones here' which stores mobile phones until the bell goes for the end of the school day?

Well, for one, we don't react very well to being told what to do. This is a long overdue era of enlightenment - we make the rules, and a national policy of banning smartphones in school would backfire.

So when Mr Bruton last week published a circular requiring all schools to consult parents, teachers, and students on the use of smartphones and tablet devices in schools - rather than enact a 'one size fits all' approach - he was placing the ball very much in the court of the school body.Top marks to the Minister.

Because to tackle the misuse and overuse of smartphones we need buy-in from everyone, from the student to the parent, the teacher to the principal. And let's face it, it's usually the parent(s) who facilitate the student's smartphone usage through purchasing the device in the first place and then paying for credit, apps and to charge the damned things.

Instead of banning smartphones outright, the minister has asked each school to devise their own policy on smartphone use. That way all unique factors pertaining to that school should, in theory, be heard and respected.

And heard and respected they must be, because survey findings make grim reading. In a recent survey of 5,500 second-level students, 47pc admitted they had checked their phone in class in the previous seven days.

Interestingly, 41pc of students felt smartphones should be banned in schools while another survey, conducted in April, found 60pc of teachers were in favour of a ban.

Today's teenagers live in an always-on world where they are connected from the moment they wake up until they lull themselves to sleep swiping through their Instagram feed. Cyberbullying is also a major problem and most school students use their smartphones to go online. Of those students surveyed, 11pc said they had been victims of cyberbullying in the past, while 34pc claimed they had witnessed others being bullied online. Those figures should send shivers down your spine.

In light of these troubling survey results you'd think I, above all people, would advocate a clear-cut ban on smartphones inside the school gates but I acknowledge the positive capabilities of smartphones and I live in the real world.

As a geography and agricultural science teacher, I regularly ask my students to use their smartphones in class. Yes, that's right, I ask them to use it.

Together we turn a device that is used to send messages, images and playing addictive online games or accessing entertainment websites, to become a tool for learning.

It's not as difficult as you might think. For example, for their farm experience project I had a group of fifth years find and map the farm we intended to visit using Google Earth. The students then used smartphones to take notes and photos during the visit. It transformed their perception of the device in their hand.

At we found that 68pc of young people use a smartphone to study. Just three years ago we reached the point where, for the first time, more of our users were accessing our study platform on mobiles and tablets than on traditional desktop devices.

Hand-held technology is the norm for teenagers and we can either devise sensible, enforceable policies through consultation or bury our heads in the sand, ban their use in schools and deal with the inevitable scourge of phones being sneaked into class, confiscated and the whole rigmarole that follows.

For me the key to all of this is, you guessed it, parenting.

I believe there are many parents who simply haven't come up with any policy within their own home.

The idea that you can give a 13-year-old a smartphone and not impose rules around its use is a recipe for disaster. Misuse at home will inevitably lead to misuse at school.

So students, parents, teachers and principals, the ball is in our court: let's work together and be smart about smartphones.

Luke Saunders is a second-level teacher and founder of Ireland's largest study website

Sunday Independent

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