Students and phones: should they have access at school?

Issue: Volume 99, Number 17

Posted: 22 October 2020
Reference #: 1HAD6f

Should students be able to access their mobile phones during the school day? Education Gazette talks to three schools with different approaches to students’ use of phones.

It’s up to schools to determine their own policies and practices around students’ use of mobile phones and other devices, working with their communities to determine the best paths forward.

Going phone-free

Students and phonesAuckland’s Glendowie College decided to go ‘cellphone-free’ from the start of this year. 

Upon receiving a growing number of requests from parents for restrictions on students’ use of mobile phones at the college, the school took a fresh look at phone use among its students. 

It noted, from an informal count, that at least 50 per cent of students were on their phones at interval or lunchtime. After doing some further research and consulting with its Board of Trustees, the school opted to go phone-free for all students during the school day, from the start of 2020. 

“We are doing this because we are concerned about our students’ wellbeing and believe that adolescents need space from their cellphones– not because cellphones are bad,” says principal Gordon Robertson. 

Research and engagement

He points to research discussed in the book Teen Brain by David Gillespie. “This research matches our experience of cellphones, and their impact on students’ wellbeing and academic engagement in class.”

Gordon says that, so far, the school is happy with the way the new policy has progressed. 

“Coming back from both lockdowns, it took students a few days to get used to not having continual access to their phones. 

“Student social engagement with each other is greater than last year, with more being active on the field or engaging in activities with other students.

“Many students would prefer access to their phones during the day but the vast majority comply with the rules.”

Encouraging sensible use

Meanwhile, Albany Senior High School has chosen a different approach, preferring to encourage sensible use by students rather than banning devices.

“Basically, I believe we are supporting young adults to self-manage, so they should have their phones but also learn how to ensure they don’t become distractions,” says principal Claire Amos. 

She clarifies that teachers always have the right to ask students to put them away or look after the phone for them if they can’t self-manage. 

“Students have a lifetime of device ownership ahead. I think we need to be realistic that they can be learning tools and that young people can learn to manage them,” she says.

Students help shape policy

Rangitoto College took the views of its students into account when forming its policies around students’ cellphone use. The Auckland school used focus groups of students from Year 9 to 13 as part of its review process, as well as looking at effective school practices from both New Zealand and overseas.

“We wanted a policy that was flexible enough to allow students to have phones at school, but robust enough to minimise classroom distraction,” says Associate Principal Tony Giles. “We also engaged with current research which suggests that the mere presence of phones reduces cognitive capacity – even in bags or pockets, the proximity of the device has a negative impact, especially if it’s receiving notifications or alerts.”

The school’s resulting policy is designed to ensure that the learning of all students is maximised, while minimising any potential for distraction. If students choose to bring a cellphone, it must be switched to ‘silent’ and deposited in the ‘cellphone box’ at the start of each and every class. At the discretion of the teacher, students may be allowed to access their phones for learning-related activities, such as using the camera, stopwatch or calculator.

Tony says students, particularly juniors, adapted very quickly to the new routine of handing in their phone each lesson.

“Seniors took a little longer to adapt, but it’s now fully embedded across the school, to the extent it’s just another automatic routine for students. Teachers still however regularly remind students of the ‘why’, actively teaching students the benefits of self-regulation, although students understand all too well the addictive and manipulative nature of social media apps.”

Teachers have found the policy to be extremely helpful, adds Tony. “On-task learning time has improved, especially for those identified as priority learners. Students are more engaged with their work, more focussed on what is going on in class, and generally happier with their  school experience.”

Community focus

Schools are encouraged to work with their students and communities to devise policies
and practices around phone use that are
right for them and support the wellbeing of their students.

Netsafe also provides support to schools about online safety. They have developed a range of guidance for schools around student use of school-owned devices and staff guidelines for the safe use of digital technology.     

“Our Netsafe Schools programme lays out a framework to review, check and plan for enhancing online safety in schools, whether that be through incident response services, policy and use agreement templates and advice or professional development for staff, boards of trustees or the wider school community,” says Sean Lyons, director of education and engagement, Netsafe. 

Keeping safe online

One of the major concerns about young people’s use of phones relates to online bullying. Safe online

Here are several resources that can help schools address online bullying:

  • Bullying Free New Zealand Student Voice for ways to empower young people to deal with cyber bullying
  • Netsafe for ways to stay safe online
  • Keep It Real Online for advice on managing difficult conversations such as online grooming, pornography, harmful digital content and online bullying.

Anyone who experiences harm through digital communications is encouraged to contact Netsafe for advice and support.

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BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 10:15 am, 22 October 2020

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