The Smartphone Tipping Point

A shift is happening

We are currently experiencing a massive shift in consciousness of thinking, as too much and inappropriate screen exposure is being linked more conclusively to the declining mental and physical health of this generation of tweens and teens. As a part of this shift, the vital role that schools have to play in providing and ensuring smartphone-free classrooms is coming to the fore.

With the recent publication of his book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has sounded the alarm of two big (well-intentioned) mistakes we’ve made: overprotecting children in the real world (where they need to learn from vast quantities of independent real world experience) and under-protecting them online (where many are being severely harmed, especially during their vulnerable years of early puberty). His work is providing a vital platform for honest discussions around what teen life can and should look like. Much of the conversation focuses on the critical role of parents and schools, who have no choice but to step into the breach, to hold the digital safety net in the absence of much-needed safety regulations for big tech.

Haidt has called for a collective swing towards four new norms, which he believes would provide a foundation upon which a healthier kind of childhood could be forged for the digital age:

  1. No smartphones before high school.
  2. No social media before 16.
  3. Phone-free schools.
  4. More independence, free play and responsibility in the real world.

Growing movements such as Smartphone Free Childhood, Phone Free Schools Movement and Let Grow, are evidence of the global tidal wave of parents collectively taking stock of the damage that has been wreaked on the generations of children since 2010, and wanting to change the norm around when and what their children get access to in the online world.

Smartphones are leaving classrooms

 In 2023, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), issued a call for a global ban on smartphones in classrooms, citing distraction and cyberbullying as two of the main challenges to modern education. The Global Education Monitoring Report 2023: Technology in education – A tool on whose terms? noted that even just having a mobile phone nearby with notifications coming through is enough to result in students losing their attention from the task at hand.  One study found that it can take students up to 20 minutes to refocus on what they were learning once distracted. In a developing country like South Africa, where educating youth to be able to compete in a constrained national and international job market, this is a distraction we can ill-afford.

 A number of countries such as France, Italy, Portugal, Finland, China, and the Netherlands, already have legislation at a national level, requiring schools to implement a phone-free academic day policy. Results in these countries have shown that limited phone use in schools directly correlates to exam success, partly because of an increase in concentration, and that reduced screen time reduces the (sometimes negative) impact of social media which can lead to bullying. It also helps to reduce phone theft, which can be an issue in some schools.

Other countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia support the principle but have until now, left it to the discretion of state, district or school level.

Here in South Africa, Be in Touch has initiated a petition to the Department of Basic Education, urging the Minister to join the global trend and set national policy banning smartphones from classrooms. In the meantime, we are starting to see a rising recognition of the benefits of smartphone-free classrooms, mostly driven by visionary school heads.

The Wykeham Collegiate

Sue Tasker has been a trail blazer for commonsense teaching and mentoring of learners throughout her teaching career. When she took up the headmistress position at The Wykeham Collegiate (a girl’s school based in Pietermaritzburg) in 2012, she took the opportunity to instill a smartphone free policy from the get-go.

Rather than imposing a “bring your own device” policy, The Wykeham Collegiate manages a bank of school iPads to support the valuable role that technology has to play in education. Understanding the downside of technology and it’s ability to disrupt education, Sue has been firm in maintaining clear smartphone boundaries. She explains that “Grade 8’s get their cell phones at five o’clock, grade 9’s at four o’clock, and grades 10 and 11 after the end of classes. Our slogan is educating women for the real world, so our grade 12’s get their phones during the day, but they’re meant to be locked in the academic lockers.”

An etiquette policy ensures that if a learner is seen using a smartphone at an inappropriate time or place, the cell phone is confiscated for a month.

Holy Rosary School

 The Holy Rosary School (a girl’s school based in Johannesburg), went viral recently, with a 40 day phone-free challenge. Headmistress, Natalie Meerholz, has reflected on the school’s insights from the experience, particularly around how children filled the boredom gap with reading, crafts, play and most importantly, more family time. The challenge showed a need for real communication between parents and children, face-to-face communication between the children themselves, more human engagement in the world around them, as well as the need for creative ways to enjoy the time off the phones.

Natalie also noted a drastic decrease in digital drama brought to school to be managed by teachers. “In 40 days, I never had any reports of social media drama compared to before where I was dealing with it on a weekly basis.”

The Holy Rosary 40 Day Phone Free campaign was just the start of the new SmartAge for Smart Phone initiative at the school – the next phases will build on this foundation and initial work.

The second leg of the campaign will focus on what can replace digital screen time. The school has planned a range of activities for the pupils and parents which include various challenges, competitions, craft learning activities and even an international fundraising event, proceeds of which will go to a local charity. They have a sponsor on board who is passionate about this campaign and the school will also be bringing in experts, both local and international, to build on the knowledge and research around the well-being and mental health of learners, as well as equip parents and teachers to tackle the many smartphone challenges.

St Albans College

Shane Kidwell, headmaster of St Albans College (a boys’ high school based in Pretoria), recently announced that smartphones were no longer welcome during the academic day – for both learners and teachers!

Shane is clear that the thinking and learning environment that the school strives for, has to be modelled by teachers and parents. “If we want our boys to be empathic, we’ve got to have teachers that are empathetic and kind. If we want boys not to use their devices during a particular space and time, then teachers shouldn’t be using their devices in that space and time.”

Driving this decision, is a desire for boys to feel a sense of belonging rather than just fitting in. With global research showing a clear spike in anxiety levels of this generation of teenagers, Shane posed the question: How do we lesson anxiety in a space where we want robust discussions around learning and thinking? For him it was obvious that connectivity was hampering connection. To give learners the opportunity to focus in a deeper way, the distraction of smartphones needed to be removed.

Schools and parents need to work together

Of course, removing smartphones from classrooms is only part of the challenge. Most schools require learners to use laptops or tablets, which still provide easy access to WhatsApp, games and social media. Even the best firewalls, software, monitoring platforms and controls do not stop it all. Learners will do what the technology has been designed to do: give in to easy-access temptation.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the heads of both primary and high schools have an enormous role to play in balancing the time that learners spend on tech, both inside and outside of school – by providing parents with science-backed guidance, to help them make the best decisions around when and how they give their children access to devices. The Be in Touch Top Tech Tips are a good framework for helping parents to be more conscious about the decisions they are making, which have long-term impacts and consequences.

Teachers may be superheroes, but they aren’t superhuman. It is time for modern parents to heed the resounding call, to stand together and focus on being their child’s best parent, rather than their best friend! 

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