Last year most of Australia was truly horrified to see a 13-year-old girl allegedly assaulting a fellow student that was filmed on a mobile phone[1]. Vision of the attack in a stairwell at a school in Bega showed the female victim being hurled into a wall, before being punched and kicked while lying on her side. It looked like a QuentinTarantino movie.

The video was released by the media in the same week as the Minister of Education in NSW the Hon Rob Stokes, established an Australian-first inquiry into the pros and cons of mobile phone use in schools which he asked me to lead. This was a welcome move, as views amongst educators remain divided on the issue and what is more up until very recently, there was is no state or territory education department with a policy position – other than leaving it up to individual school principals to decide. Unsurprisingly, some politicians seem to have put this issue into the too hard basket!

The result is a dog’s breakfast of policies right across Australia. Some schools require students to hand in phones at the beginning of the day and they collect them at the end of the day. Others require students to keep them in their locker or bag, other institutions allow students to keep them on their person, but not use them in class. Still others allow use during recess and lunchtime, while others don’t. Some schools argue that older students (Year 11 and 12) should be allowed to use phones as they have a greater ability to self regulate.

The debate has not been confined to Australia. Internationally, France has led the way with Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanque announcing a total ban on student mobile phone use in both primary and secondary schools starting in September 2018. Countries like Albania, Greece and parts of the UK have followed suit. The French Minister captured the prevailing European sentiment when announcing the Bill – he said that mobile phones were a technological advance but they could not be allowed to monopolize our lives. He observed that you can’t find your way in a world of technology if you can’t read, write, count, respect others and work in a team.” 

But it is not simple, blanket prohibition of devices is fraught with difficulty. Interestingly years ago, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio lifted a ten-year-ban on phones on school premises, put in place by his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. The original ban reportedly gave rise to a cottage industry of mobile phone storage businesses near schools across the city. Many students stored their phones for the day at nearby grocery stores or in vans that roamed outside school gates for a small fee, typically a dollar or so.

The NSW inquiry sought to establish world’s best practice, examine the literature and take the views of educators, cyber safety experts and parent groups. Ultimately, school is a microcosm of wider society. Just as smartphone use may be inappropriate during meal times, in a family meeting, or during a job interview, neither is it in the middle of a classroom. Knowing that certain behaviour is suitable in some settings, but not in others – is at the heart of how young people can better use mobile phones responsibly as they grow up. 

So after 6 months, 14,000 survey responses and 80 written submissions, the task to review the use of smart phones in NSW schools came to an end. The report was released  and the Minister agreed to the introduction of strict new bans on smart phones in primary schools.  Many individuals and organisations in the cyber safety arena have been campaigning for such a move, based on school’s legal duty of care to protect children from digital harms.

A major driver of the recommendations was the research released by the Office of the eSafety Commissioner in May this year of 3,000 young people which found that 24% of 8 to 12 year olds have received unwanted contact from strangers online, 15% had been subjected to cyber bullying. But it was not just the predatory behaviour online and cyberbullying, that prompted the Review Team to opt for a ban on smartphones in primary schools, it was also the inappropriate sharing of explicit images between students and the overwhelming number of teachers who argued that mobile phones in schools were an unnecessary distraction. 

The recommendation unsurprisingly has the overwhelming support of Primary Principals many of whom Australia had already introduced some form of prohibition, but now of course have Departmental and Ministerial backing. The people of NSW should be pleased it has a Premier and Minister who has shown leadership in the area.

Interestingly one Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, said he believed mobile phone-related distraction was a main reason for Australia sliding down in Pisa rankings. Pasi unsurprisingly, came out in support of the primary school ban.  

So what about in Year 7?  Issues to be examined include the extent to which having mobile phones in a Year 7 classroom reduces much needed physical activity, to what extent is the presence of mobile phones in a Year 7 classroom responsible for loss of concentration and they become weapons of mass distraction?  Does unfettered access to mobile phones in Year 7 exacerbate cyber-bullying, image based abuse, phone theft, access to pornography and importantly hampered the ability of youngsters to interact socially? 

Parents and schools must realise that all of these questions are particularly important in Year 7 when many of the young people, have the psychological resilience of a house of cards. 

While it would be just super to be able to cite robust research that comprehensively answers the above mentioned questions, sadly the researchers have dropped the ball. In the course of the inquiry a comprehensive international literature review could not find any reliable peer reviewed studies that gives us answers.

So while we wait for the research to be done. We have to rely on commonsense. 

So first, most year 7 brains struggle to focus and concentrate on one thing at a time anyway, so it is a no brainer that given most already have access to laptops and tablets they do not need phones as well. I believe that they should be banned in classrooms, unless specifically being used in an educational context.

Certainly on the basis of what the majority of teachers told the NSW inquiry – there is no doubt that the majority want the phones out, saying that they are sick of teaching from the back of the classrooms in order to check what the students are doing.

Second, all schools have a legal duty of care to provide students in Year 7 with a safe environment in which to learn. The presence of mobile phones in class and at recess and lunchtime is a foreseeable and preventable source of cyber bullying, inappropriate material and image based abuse, so schools could potentially be sued for a breach of this duty of care, unless they explicitly prohibit the unauthorised use of mobile phones at these times. 

Third, as some Year 7 students will have special medical and psychological needs, any policy must have built in exemptions for special needs students. Many young people in Year 7 with diabetes, for example will have their insulin pumps controlled by their mobiles. 

Fourth, we do believe that all Year 7’s should be required to sit a digital licence (eg: before being allowed to bring their phones to school. Whether this is mandated by law as it will be in Queensland and NSW, or is adopted by individual schools as a legal protection, it is clear that there is a need for all Year 7’s to show that they have the skills, knowledge and strategies to use their phones in a safe, smart and responsible manner. While we wait for politicians to lead on this issue, pit is up to the parents in Year 7 to contact their school and suggest this policy. 

I do not believe that mobile phones are inherently evil. I acknowledge and promote a range of useful apps and web-based programs that can enhance the wellbeing of young people in Year 7. But we do believe in keeping Year 7’s safe so for me keeping it in lockers and bags during the day makes sense. They can still contact their parents and friends on the way to and from school if need be.