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opinion

Madonna King: Smart move to ban phones in schools nationally

Mobile phones are banned for students at NSW government high schools during school hours.

Mobile phones are banned for students at NSW government high schools during school hours. Photo: Getty

The impact of the decision late on Thursday to ban mobile phones in schools across Australia will be difficult to measure.

While some states have moved to ban or restrict phone use, it has not been uniform or based on any national framework.

This decision provides backing for NSW, which had announced a ban already, and pulls Queensland into line with others. Queensland had been reluctant to ban mobile phones in schools – despite widespread complaints and a petition signed by more than 10,000 parents.

In a statement Thursday night, Education Minister Grace Grace said Queensland state school students will be banned from using mobile phones and smartwatches when classes begin next year.

The ban shows that – despite a long history to the contrary, as evidenced during the pandemic lockdowns – our state and federal governments are able to put their politics aside, and work together collaboratively.

And more crucially, this decision will change the trajectory for a generation of children, who are now locked into a 24/7 digital world that most parents find difficult to comprehend.

Use and abuse

At schools, each week, hours and hours are lost by educators dealing with the fallout of mobile phone use inside the school yard.

Examples include a TikTok blackout challenge at lunchtime, where one child chokes another. Or an 11-year-old taking the opportunity to share porn with his whole class. A 14-year-old girl, sending a photo of her frenemy, topless, to every boy in year nine at another school.

Teens, too young for a retail job, spending lunchtime uploading naked photos on sites where they earn a hell of a lot more than a decent hourly wage.

Call centres overseas focus on particular school areas to bribe vulnerable children into uploading indecent videos, which are then shared across the world.

A 17-year-old hurt after a teen break-up sending a naked photo of his former partner to her entire sports team.

A father finding his daughter’s tormentor had sent images of a vagina to everyone in her contact list. A school principal calling parents and explaining how she was in receipt of a topless photograph of their 14-year-old daughter.

These examples are not made up. Everyone of them has happened, recently, in schools where unfettered mobile phone use is allowed.

And while some states have already moved on implementing restrictions and bans, this brings all states together in a determination to make school yards smartphone-free zones.

Costs add up

Up until now, teachers have been reporting that children’s concentration has plummeted; they cannot focus if their mobile phone is sitting on the desk.

School leaders have been explaining how the social skills of tweens, those yet to reach their teens, have been stunted to the point where they are unable to look each other in the eye; they’d rather send them a text.

And students, by their mid-teens, have been brutally honest in how the mobile phone has become weaponised in the school yard; used to ghost and isolate, torment and belittle others.

What is the opportunity cost of all of that? What might children do now during school hours, if they aren’t focused on blue screens and constant beeps?

Educators in those states and schools where phone bans have already been implemented say physical activity has risen sharply, with lunchtime activities more likely to be on the oval than at the lockers.

Others say that reading and chess-playing in libraries almost need their own wait lists.

Enduring legacy

Thursday’s national ban, led by federal Education Minister Jason Clare, pulls Queensland into line, but it also creates a national framework around mobile phone use in schools – in the same way other countries have, or are working towards.

And if Jason Clare does nothing more in his time as education minister, he has created a legacy that writes him into the history books.

Of course, smartphones can be used for nefarious activities outside school hours – but that’s an issue of parenting.

And it shouldn’t be confused with the role of schools, which surely is to fill our children’s minds with wonder and curiosity; a job which will be so much easier without the lure of a smartphone taking up room in a school uniform pocket.

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