Digital Devolution:  Why phone bans are a cop-out and only distract from more critical issues impacting students and teachers

With the arrival of the new Premier in NSW, Chris Minns, has come a hasty announcement of “sweeping” mobile phone bans to be introduced “from day 1, term 4” across all NSW public schools this year.  The move follows similar policies in all other states, except Queensland and the ACT.

The goal of the ban?  To improve students’ learning and social development, and, according to Minns, to “clear our classrooms of unnecessary distractions and create better environments for learning.”

I’m always interested when a politician says they value creating better environments for learning.  Who wouldn’t be?  It’s just a shame that phone bans do not lead to improvements in student performance, nor do they reduce bullying

Beyond this, phone bans create a kind of technology denialism that will not only erode young people’s trust in teachers but will distract from more urgent problems impacting students and teachers in schools.

Credit here must go to Queensland’s Education Minister Grace Grace, who has come under pressure this week to follow the other states and ban phones.  But she has been unswayed in her commitment to allow schools to make their own decisions about the use of phones.  Her reasoning is based on the QLD state government’s Anti-cyber-bullying Taskforce framework, which does not recommend a ban on phones in schools. 

For those not in classrooms regularly, it’s easy to imagine what teaching in the ‘Age of Distraction’ looks like.  Perhaps our politicians and even parents imagine hordes of kids ignoring their teacher as they hunch over their phones mindlessly scrolling through TikTok. 

Granted, any high school teacher will tell you this scenario does happen (indeed, some teachers end up in the TikTok’s themselves!), but in my 15 years in high school classrooms, I can confidently tell you the situation is not as urgent as is implied currently in the media and the national conversation.

The fear of digital distraction that underpins phone bans in schools is nothing new. Writer Frank Furedi observes, “since the invention of writing, people have been concerned about the deleterious effects of distraction on memory and attention span” and that “most of the troubles attributed to the internet and digital technology have served as topics of concern in previous centuries.”

In fact, long before our fear of digital tech emerged, Furedi points out that we feared the impact of reading on memory and concentration.  Even Socrates and Seneca were spooked by it, both warning that reading would “weaken readers’ memory,” (Socrates) and make a person “discursive and unsteady” (Seneca). 

Concerns about reading escalated with the invention of the printing press, and Furedi says, “the era of information overload had arrived, and numerous commentators insisted that people’s ability to reflect and think deeply was now at risk.”

Oh, the irony.  Parents in 2023 would likely cry tears of joy if their child were to pick up a book!

While the speed of our changing digital landscape can be overwhelming, young people are counting on the adults in their lives to help them navigate it in a healthy and supportive way, because – like reading – phones are here to stay. 

So, what does a regular classroom look like when it comes to phones?  Every teacher is different, but in my classroom, I have a strong focus on handwritten notes, visual notetaking, discussions, and cooperative group-work, and there are many times in which no tech is used at all.  As I often say, “All you’ll have in the exam is your pen and your brain.”  We do use laptops to type, research, design, but we rarely use a phone for these tasks.

In class, reasonable everyday instances of phone use might look like a student texting their mum at the end of a lesson to reschedule pick-up details with multiple siblings.  It might look like students Googling word definitions when we have a game of Scrabble on a Friday arvo.  I’ve seen a student complete his entire assignment on his phone – an essay and PowerPoint – while his family saved up money to get his laptop fixed.  Some teachers utilize the amazing cameras that phones now have and get students to make short films or document their project ideas.  I will even sometimes use my own phone to take photos of notes on the whiteboard to share via email with students who’ve missed class.

These are reasonable instances of phone use in a modern classroom. 

Given the ubiquitous nature of phones in our lives (89.9% of Australians own a mobile phone), it seems unreasonable to create what researcher Joanne Orlando describes as a dynamic where “something they need to use every day is now seen as “wrong” or “harmful.” 

In my experience, simple reminders are normally all it takes for a student to put their phone away in a lesson.  Reminders can sound like “phones away, thanks,” or “I’ll just wait while Amanda pops that phone away,” * cue cringey silence till Amanda pops phone away *

And the lesson continues.  Sometimes several reminders are needed.  But that’s the reality of working with kids and is not unique to phones – many reminders are needed in a regular teaching day, such as reminders to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ to not run in the corridors, to tuck shirts in, or every teacher’s nightmare: for students to please use tissues. 

Some teachers have a different approach to phones:  they may choose to keep phones at the front of the classroom in a container, or some ask students who are misusing the phone to take it to the office.  Either way, the majority of teachers have phones under control already and do not need to be patronized by being placed in the role of “implementers” of yet another top-down government intervention.  Besides, teachers have bigger fish to fry; namely workload, salaries, the very real impact of the teacher shortage, and the desire to finally getting school funding sorted out

Occasionally, I have come across students who have a more troubling reliance on their phone, and I’ve found the best thing in these scenarios is not to yell at them, not to nag them constantly about the phone (thus disrupting the learning of all the students), and not to take their phone – after all, they are expensive!

Those actions will only damage my relationship with the student or escalate tension, and I have experienced a lot of success in private conversations with the student and their parents, as well as genuinely connecting with them and asking how I could engage them more in class.

While some teachers will begrudge my empathetic approach, it is in fact underpinned by findings in a Swabey et. al study, who found that “the act of consciously catering for the developmental needs of teenagers directly contributes to greater academic success, enhances active engagement in students’ learning and builds each individual’s positive social and emotional resilience.”

Unsurprisingly, Swabey et. al also found that “when students believe that they have a good relationship with their teachers, they are likely to follow teacher instructions, ask for help and seek guidance, and collectively these lead to greater engagement in learning and better academic outcomes.”

After all the uncertainty and upheaval our young people have been through over the last three years, we owe it to them to be reasonable when it comes to their engagement with technology and to prioritise their wellbeing and development. 

Professor of psychology, Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, says anxiety can be one of the reasons teenagers “escape into screens.”  She says that “across most types of anxiety runs a common thread — difficulty coping with feelings of uncertainty: something today’s teenagers have more than their fair share of.”

We no doubt all agree that teenagers should reduce their reliance on smartphones, but Dennis-Tiwary notes “although some research does show that excessive and compulsive smartphone use is correlated with anxiety and depression, there is a lack of direct evidence that devices actually cause mental health problems” and “large studies that fail to follow individuals over time can reveal only correlation, not cause.” 

So, while it’s a no-brainer that we need to help young people manage their online habits, Dennis-Tiwary concludes that “just blaming the machines is a cop-out, a way to avoid the much more difficult task of improving young people’s lives so they won’t need to escape.”

Beyond positive relationships and wellbeing, we can’t talk about phone distraction and not consider our pedagogy.  It takes courage for a teacher to ask difficult questions not about what students are distracted by but about what they seek to be distracted from.

According to an article from Harvard, “boredom is one of the main reasons that students report using a digital device during class” and “if you want students to pay attention to you, then you have to offer them something more interesting than your slides.”

I’m not suggesting that every teacher can please every student every day, but we should at least aim to provide students with a variety of engaging pedagogical activities – particularly, as Swabey et. al suggest, activities that prioritise “opportunities for students to develop and build social relationships.” 

Now, let’s pause for a moment to consider Singapore; the apple of every Education Minister’s eye.  Surely they have a phone ban, right?  Wrong.  There is no blanket ban of smartphones in Singaporean schools.

Instead, Mr Zainal Sapari, former teacher, principal and superintendent with the Ministry of Education in Singapore, describes their approach as being one which teaches “students to use mobile devices responsibly both in and out of school. Through Cyber Wellness (CW) lessons, students are taught how to take responsibility for their online well-being.”  They even describe parents as “partners-in-education” who “play an important role in guiding their children in the use of smartphones and online interactions.”

It’s laughable that the top performing nation in the world – that our kids so regularly get compared to – is actively working in unison with young people and parents to help them navigate technology, while our approach is to pretend it doesn’t exist at all. 

Let’s think back for a moment about Australia’s journey with technology in the classroom.  Before banning technology, back in 2007 Kevin Rudd launched his slick ‘Digital Education Revolution’ campaign which sought to accelerate the use of technology by putting a “computer on the desk of every upper secondary school student.” 

This was supposed to “revolutionise classroom education” and “nourish the use of ICT in teaching and learning.” Alas, the high-speed broadband needed never eventuated, and only 220,000 of the 1 million promised laptops were delivered.  In the end, it was too expensive, so states shifted gear to adopt the ‘Bring Your Own Device’ approach, where students “bring their own digital devices to school, for the purposes of learning.” 

Bring on the revolution!  Right!?  Well, not so much.

By 2015, the OECD’s education director Andreas Schleicher said school technology had raised “too many false hopes” and it was reported that education systems that “invested heavily in information and communications technology” saw “no noticeable improvement in PISA test results for reading, mathematics or science.” 

Furthermore, the study showed that “the countries and cities with the lowest use of the internet in school – South Korea, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Japan – are among the top performers in international tests.”

But don’t despair, Aussie students did top some lists – just not the ones the politicians are too proud of.  For instance, we’ve topped the list of time spent online during school hours and our students have shown the most advanced web browsing skills

It seems we’d be top of the class if PISA measured our participation rates, our Cookie Clicker and Cool Math Games scores, or even our young peoples’ ability to multitask.  That’s right, phone distractions are a walk in the park compared to the way our students regularly demonstrate their ‘advanced web browsing skills’ by switching between internet tabs depending on where the teacher is in the room. 

In our modern classrooms a student can be online shopping for their formal dress or new sneakers, applying for a job at Coles, watching an episode of Gilmore Girls, playing Tetris, finishing their maths assignment, and slapping together a thesis for their Frankenstein analysis all at once!  Revolutionary!

Evidently, if the issue is distractions, surely the next policy move would be to ban the internet in schools entirely, as it’s clearly a more insidious distraction than phones and has not led to any discernible improvement in results. Why not go a step further and ban Smart Watches and then laptops next?  Throw in a water bottle ban, too, while you’re at it – no one needs any more distracting viral water bottle flip’s in class, do they?

It sounds foolish because it is.  Classrooms are already filled with distractions, and just like universities are having to do, the teachers who have decided to stay will need to reflect on their approach to technology and pedagogy.

It’s also important to note the way that the phone ban debate can be seen as a form of policy gaslighting.  Political sociologist Dr Naomi Barnes describes this aptly, saying “mobile phone bans are political rhetoric for ‘strong on education’ without having to pay for strong education policy.”

Yes, a phone ban is a lot cheaper (and easier) than taking action on teacher shortages, salaries, and workload, as called for loudly and proudly by teachers in the #morethanthanks campaign in NSW, but it still comes at a cost.

For instance, Victoria was so confident in their vision to ban phones they budgeted for “AU$12 million to help schools deliver storage solutions to securely store student mobile phones.”  Some schools are spending up to $30,000 on Yondr pouches that house phones for the day, that kids have already found multiple ways to open. 

Side note:  Maybe we can convince PISA this is an example of our students mastering 21st century skills such as critical thinking and problem solving? 

But seriously, couldn’t we use that $12 million to educate kids about, say…the dangers of vaping or to improve student access to mental health support?  Or, If Minns is so passionate about creating these ‘better learning environments,’ why not show the same policy ambition when it comes to fixing some of the outdated and neglected facilities across NSW schools, such as “deplorable” toilets or ageing, ad hoc demountables described as ‘sweat boxes’ in the summer?

Ultimately, this debate should prompt us all to consider our own phone habits and etiquette and contemplate what we model to young people in our lives.  The bans are breathtakingly hypocritical if adults are not willing to make the same commitment to being phone-free for 6 hours a day.   It’s the equivalent of telling young people not to vape while puffing strawberry-flavoured vape rings out into the air.

Are we all so well-adjusted and balanced in our own phone habits that we can preach to young people about the joys of a phone free life?  The truth is, we can’t. 

A Queensland government report examined adult mobile phone use and revealed that “far too many kids are feeling ignored by their parents because of their technology use” and that “kids across the state are stressed by schoolwork and crave extra attention from parents, who are often consumed in their phone.”

Writer and mum Chryssie Swarbrick has written about resisting the urge to be consumed by her phone while watching her son at his swimming lessons.  She describes being “on auto-pilot” once her son had “launched himself into the pool” as she began to scroll on her phone. 

She writes, “A message popped up at the top of my screen: WATCH_ME_SWIM, it said.  Rather than a telepathic message from my submerged child, this is actually the name of the free wifi at our local swimming pool.  The notification did exactly what it was intended to do: it made me look up at my son.”

If only a helpful reminder like WATCH_HER_SPEAK could have popped up on the phones of then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his colleagues when Tanya Plibkersek was addressing them in 2020. 

Photo by Alex Ellinghausen

When I talk to kids about phone etiquette in the classroom, I refer to job expectations in the real-world regarding manners and acceptable times to look at a phone.  The image above would be a great example of what not to do. 

In researching for this article, I asked some workers in my local community about reasonable phone use on the job.   

The young barista who brought out my coffee told me she is allowed to check her phone during her shift.  She took her phone from her pocket and told me: “I’m not on it much – just in the toilet I’ll have a quick check, but other than that, I have to get on with it.”  Sounds reasonable to me. 

Then I asked the shopping centre cleaner.  “Yeah,” he said, “I do check my phone on my shift.”  He pointed to two phones on his mop trolly.  “That’s the work phone there, in case of emergencies they call me, and that’s my personal phone there, which I check sometimes.”

Again, sounds reasonable. 

It’s noteworthy that the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration – signed by all education ministers – states that our goal is to nurture lifelong learners who “are productive and informed users of technology.” But how can we declare this when our approach is to block young people from developing healthy habits to be productive and informed users of the most prevalent technology in the world? 

Likewise, another of our collective goals is apparently to nurture lifelong learners who “are able to make sense of their world and think about how things have become the way they are.” But how can we help young people ‘make sense of their world’ by forcing them to pretend that they live in an entirely different world?  A world that is more reflective of their parents’ adolescence – a bygone era that so many seem to believe was somehow safer, calmer, happier. 

Perhaps the perceived safety of the good old days is what has inspired so many education ministers to support this digital devolution in schools.  Sadly, it tells young people we’ve shirked our collective responsibility to help them navigate the complexities of digital technology in an uncertain world because it was just too hard. Even more sad is that the policy distracts from more critical issues impacting students and teachers in Australia.

Copyright © 2023 by Melanie Ralph. 

Lead image by Vjeran Pavic

4 thoughts on “Digital Devolution:  Why phone bans are a cop-out and only distract from more critical issues impacting students and teachers

  1. Melanie, as a now retired high school Principal, all that you say makes complete sense to me. I must say that that was exactly my experience with phones in my school. The cutting edge use of phones as an integral part of learning is inestimable. Yet, young teachers tell me that the inappropriate student use of phones during breaks puts immense pressure on them to respond: the withdrawn child who has head down all break immersed in their phone on their own, the groups of youngsters who are all heads down on the phone on social media, unacceptable use of photography used to bully and influence others etc, etc. How would you respond to this?


    1. Hi Ross, thank you so much for your comment and for engaging with my article. Undeniably, phones present a lot of complex challenges for parents and schools. Firstly, unacceptable use of phones for photography or for bullying is flat out unacceptable, and schools are at the forefront sometimes dealing with this. As noted in the article, the Anti-cyber-bullying taskforce framework examines these issues and still does not recommend a phone ban – one reason cited is that a ban “could concentrate unwanted behaviour in after-school hours and would do nothing to change the underlying causes of bullying and cyberbullying.” (If you get a chance to read the entire report I highly recommend it). So on this front it’s up to schools to not only ensure they manage these issues on a case-by-case basis, but also invest in programs and resources that can help kids with those underlying causes. You also describe those kids who can be withdrawn at lunch time with their heads down. Here’s the thing: there’s also kids who hide away in novels. Percy Jackson novels, Harry Potter novels, – whatever is the latest fantasy trend! – are typical in my experience. These kids still exist and in the same way a young person may try to disappear in a phone, the novel-addicted kids will do the same. It’s important here to note the very real challenge of secondary schools across the country literally overcrowding. They are loud, busy, sometimes overwhelming places, and inevitably there will be kids who want to hide behind a phone, behind a book, in the music room (like I did as a teenager), in the photography dark room (as my wife told me today that she did) – this can just be the result of kids who simply don’t like school much, struggle with mental health, or who are just trying to get by in the chaos.

      I find it interesting in this discussion that a lot of adults like to project onto young people a version of socailising that they feel is the ‘right’ way to be in school, when rather than yanking a phone from vulnerable kids like this, I think some watchful, caring attention from teachers and parents would be the best approach. Perhaps even asking, is there anything we can do to help you connect with others at lunch? Do we have a diverse range of clubs? Is the library providing safe spots, games, resources to help you? In my experience, public school libraries are often bursting at the seams and struggle to cope. Lots to consider here, Ross – thanks again for your comment.


      1. Thanks a million, Melanie. All sound thinking. I was one of the first in the Gold Coast with an iPhone in 2007 and I particularly recall some of our Chinese exchange students seeing me with it in the playground at lunch and being very impressed and excited about being in such a cutting edge school! Keep up the good work.

        Liked by 1 person

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