9 Aug 2023

School cellphone bans: Unworkable or no big deal?

7:15 pm on 9 August 2023
Woman writing and consulting a mobile phone on a desk at home or office

Photo: 123rf

Many schools with phone bans already in place report students are happy with the measure.

Cellphones will be banned from schools if the National Party is elected in October, with leader Christopher Luxon saying the ban is one of the ways the party will lift students' "abysmal" achievement.

At Queen Margaret College there is a no cellphone policy, but despite that students are allowed to carry their phones with them - and are trusted not to use them.

Year 13 student Eve Robertshawe said it meant children learned how to appropriately use their phones.

"It's actually really effective because once we get out into the real world and we have a career, our boss isn't gonna take our phone off us at the start of the day."

Fellow student Avani Aiulo, Year 10, said not using her phone had helped with her learning.

"I think I'm more focused and I'm more engaged in what my teachers are talking to me about, without using my phone."

Year 6 student Samira Peake said people not looking down at their phones made it easier for her to make friends when she first transferred to the school

At Scots College, middle school students need to keep their phones in their locker, while senior students can keep their phones on them.

Year 10 student Jack Hendricksen said he found the policy "a bit weird" after coming from other schools that allowed phones. But he said not being able to use his phone meant he spent more time outside at school.

Imogen Oscroft, Year 8, said the policy did make it harder for students and parents to contact each other, but not impossible, while Caitlin Horn (Year 10) said people communicated more when they were not looking down at their phones.

Students at both schools reported being able to use their phone in classes where teachers deemed they added value.

National also said it would make exemptions to the phone ban if a student needs it for health reasons or as a learning aid.

'Kids are back to being kids'

While Secondary Principals' Association president and principal of Papatoetoe High School Vaughan Couillault told Morning Report a total nationwide ban was unworkable and unnecessary, that has not been the case at Otago Boys' High School, according to rector Richard Hall.

The school banned openly using cellphones early last year - including during breaks. Hall on Wednesday said the ban was going well.

"I've been really pleased with the way it's been adopted by students and the community," he told RNZ's Checkpoint. "Couldn't be happier with it, to tell you the truth."

There had been two main changes, he explained.

"Kids are back to being kids - playing in the playgrounds, talking to each other, all of those sorts of things that people at my extreme age did when we were at school.

"The second thing is the number of incidents of cyber bullying that we have had, including students and staff, have dropped through the floor. Before we'd have incidents where boys would be videoed, photographs would be taken without their permission, and sometimes staff too, and those would be uploaded with obviously pretty dispiriting messages. That really while it's not zero, it's certainly a lot less than it's ever been."

Hall said some students were apprehensive at first, but did not take long to understand why the ban was there.

"I think when you explain it to teenagers and you understand all of the research around what's coming through their phones, the influence of Andrew Tate and people like that that we continually have to fight in schools, they get it straight away."

Students can take phones to school - so they can call parents after the final bell for pickups, for example - but they have to stay in their bags during school hours.

"It's often in your bag from the moment you enter our grounds to the moment you leave. If it's in your pocket, even if you're not using it, it's mine," Hall said.

The first time a student was caught using their phone, it was confiscated overnight; the second time for a week; and the third, a conversation with their parents would result. Hall said that resulted in far less work than having to deal with the consequences of unabated social media use.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon

Christopher Luxon - wants phones out of schools. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"I don't spend much time doing it at all really, in the main. My response to that would be, what was the amount of time I was spending with serious discipline incidences and interviewing parents and interviewing boys, when teachers or boys were having their photographs taken without their permission?

"That was far in excess of what I'm doing now when I'm telling a boy to give me his phone, hand it over and he can collect it tomorrow."

He said if the ban came not from school officials, but the government, his job would be even easier.

"I think it would be easier as a principal… to say hey look, to a parent or a boy or a child who's upset with it, 'Hey, it's government policy. Just following the government policy.'"

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