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Here’s an alternative to banning smartphones in high schools

Over the last several years the commentary on kids and their smartphones has grown exponentially. And with it so has the moral panic. Every adult who’s ever created a Facebook account has opinions on what kids should be doing to overcome their alleged ‘addiction’ to devices that are, in most cases, gifted by parents and carers for birthdays, bar mitzvahs or holy communions.

We’ve been dizzily handing out technical hardware without updating our mental software with the discreet skills required to deal shrewdly with the responsibility that comes with operating these powerful devices.

Young people need to be explicitly taught digital literacy, digital citizenship and even Digital Intelligence skills alongside the social and emotional skills required to be a savvy online inhabitant.  We cannot simply devise BYOD contracts listing a range of misdemeanors and expect kids to never make mistakes online or to not push boundaries and challenge rules.

The recent dialogue from conservative politicians around ‘banning’ phones in schools is shortsighted and reactive – especially when discussed as a ‘solution’ to cyber-bullying. Even KidsHelpline agree – it’s the behaviours we need to address, and that is complicated.

Banning anything is generally like a red rag to an already angry bull, tempting those ‘at-risk’ kids who are most likely to test boundaries to unsafe levels to engage in behaviours that these phone sanctions seek to prevent.  The majority of kids who toe the line, mediate their actions and follow guidelines aren’t those who bans seek to protect.

Telling teenagers their devices are illegal contraband won’t help change bullying behaviours, slash online hate, delete digital distractions or reduce selfitis (yes, someone has turned taking too many selfies into a disorder). It doesn’t provide opportunities to practice self-regulation skills, to mediate their usage or understand the benefits of delaying gratification.

These are skills ‘screenagers’ don’t have yet – but that we desperately hope they’ll acquire almost by osmosis or some magical transfer directly into their developing brains. Removing opportunities to cultivate these skills (and even screw up a bit along the way) places young people at more risk, not less. As with learning to drive a car – you need lessons, supervision and practice to build the skills both technical and mental to be a good driver.  How are young people supposed to learn these new digital skills without practical experience in real world situations? Including practice at putting the phone away.

To be clear, I don’t think kids with their necks bent staring at screens at lunchtime is ‘good’ and I absolutely don’t think children should have access to social media accounts until they’re 13 (just like I believe parents need to rethink their own sharenting practices). But I do think there are ways to teach healthy digital habits (and I’ve been doing this for several years with Digital Nutrition).

Consulting with and listening (like, really listening) to young people about how they want to enjoy the digital world without the dramas and distractions, and empowering them to choose when to use their devices could help solve the anxieties held over the fate of modern teens and their physical and emotional health.

Choice theory is a handy model to revisit here – the way behaviours are driven by a range of needs. Importantly it’s psychological needs around belonging, competence and autonomy which are implicated in problematic smartphone use (its actually not the device itself, it’s the online activities and micro-transactions and posts within platforms that we really need to examine).

Helping young people explore their own power to make choices ( to use or not use their phones), have a feeling control over their lives (and their digital identities) and shape their world positively (through who/what they follow) trumps blanket bans and fearful reactions. Giving young people a sense of control (not in totality, but with information/education and some space to exercise it) builds trust, builds their capacities and their self-efficacy.

Responding calmly and judiciously, taking time to understand the complexities of the research around kids and tech (like the fact there is no magic number when it comes to screen time) and putting aside media sensationalism around iGen and its associated alternative facts is the kind of response young people need.  Prohibition shows little true leadership at a time when young people really need us to step up with authentic responses that show we are listening and we get them.

By changing the approach, and importantly changing our language around technology we reframe the conversation and the connection with have with young people.  If we want them to reach out to trusted adults, seek support and report incidents of cyber hate, bullying or violent extremism then we must take time to build meaningful programs that address the skills required.  There is no quick fix.  There are no apps or software programs that can take away all the risks and insert these skills into peer groups. We need to invest time and energy to developing authentic programs that address the complex interaction between the online and the offline worlds and our relationships within them.  These are human problems, which need considered human solutions.

Oh, and while we’re at it, adults could do with checking in on their own digital habits and the way they’re role modelling technology use. Imitation and mimicry are powerful learning mechanisms picked up by even the smallest humans.  Kids can’t see the difference between Mum using her phone to keep up with work emails or ordering groceries online from playing CandyCrush or scrolling through #inspoquotes on Instagram.

How are you choosing to use your phone today? What culture around technology use is your school fostering?

Jocelyn is a psychologist, educator and consultant who has been studying cyber-psychology for a decade. To work with her to develop an effective and authentic technology use or digital citizenship policy in your school, email her.


About Jocelyn Brewer

Jocelyn is a Sydney-based psychologist and the creator of Digital Nutrition. She is an accredited teacher and has been studying cyberpsychology for a decade.

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