SCEGGS bans students using mobiles as schools battle online dependence

Top girls’ school SCEGGS Darlinghurst has become the latest to restrict phone use amid concerns about increasing dependence and distractibility as teachers across school sectors say students’ screen habits have intensified since last year’s lockdown.

The eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, said parents are struggling to wind back permissive attitudes to social media that applied during the pandemic. There was a 69 per cent increase in the number of cyberbullying reports in 2021 compared with 2019.

When the Secondary Principals Council asked its members about the , some pointed to the increased use of screens, which were the only way students could keep in touch with friends during months of isolation last year.

One said: We’re seeing social media and mobile phone use increasing dramatically as students have all been online for a long time.

Several principals and teachers from across school sectors contacted by the Herald also reported that students were struggling to shake their lockdown screen habits.

The principal of St Catherine’s School in Waverley, Julie Townsend, said teachers had noticed issues in the junior school. Particularly years 5 and 6, there is an increase in problems with students using social media, Messenger and so on, she said. This may be because it was their lifeline during lockdown and they are now struggling to decrease use of it.

Inman Grant said cyberbullying was often an extension of face-to-face bullying within the school gates and there tended to be an increase when students returned to the classroom. But parents have been telling the commission’s investigators they have been more lax around screens and social media use for their children than they would normally have been.

While they understand it’s not appropriate for younger children, in particular, to be on social media, they felt a need to allow it during COVID-19 for social contact and also as a way of coping with many parents also working full-time from home, she said.

Now we are starting to come out the other side of the pandemic, many parents are finding it hard to ratchet this increased screen time and social media usage back. As online exposure goes up, so do the risks that something will go wrong online.

In a letter explaining her decision to parents, Jenny Allum, the principal of SCEGGS, said teachers were concerned about greater use of phones, a seeming increase in students’ dependency on them, and just the plain distractibility of students, too.

She told the Herald: This seems particularly so after the COVID lockdowns, but perhaps [it is] for other reasons too.

SCEGGS’ decision comes after Shore School dumped its BYO device policy amid concerns that students were gaming, gambling and streaming Netflix while they were supposed to be listening to their teachers.

There is fiery debate in the education community over phone bans, with some teachers and principals arguing that students must be taught to use their phones responsibly and bans will drive them underground, while others say their presence in the classroom is difficult to police and has a major impact on learning.

There is a shortage of robust evidence on the issue.

Professor Pasi Sahlberg, of Southern Cross University, is opposed to bans. He surveyed students, parents and teachers as part of his Growing Up Digital project, and they have observed a decline in students’ readiness to learn at school. They come to school tired, they can’t stay on task, he said.

He said the solution should involve parents, schools and students working together, rather than a ban during school hours. [A ban is like] aspirin for lung cancer, he said. It takes the pain away but it doesn’t address the root cause.

Many teachers and parents support bans, saying students should be given support to focus on their primary objective, which is learning. One of them, Mark Clark, who has been teaching in public schools for more than 40 years, said he has never seen so many distracted students in my entire teaching life.

I constantly see students who are obviously looking at non-educational material and who click out whenever I come near. There are constant arguments about putting phones away and closing laptops so that I can have their attention.

A literature review by Alan Parsons, an academic and deputy head of Newcastle Grammar, cited studies that suggested an impact on attention, academic attainment and sleep quality.

While he found many of the studies were correlational rather than causal, the current literature suggests caution.

Yondr, a company that supplies lockable pouches for phones to schools, said its Australian client list had grown from six schools in 2019 to 134 this year, including 100 in NSW.

Newington College introduced a ban in late 2018, telling students to keep phones in their lockers during the day because they led to lower concentration, higher stress and warped views on reality.

Deputy headmaster David Roberts said that, three-and-a-half years later, the ban had ensured boys spend their break times talking and moving. You don’t see at our school what I’ve seen at other schools – boys on their phone at recess or lunch, he said.

It’s frequently asked by parents what is our mobile phone policy, [and] there’s often a sense of relief that boys leave their mobile phones in their lockers during the day.

A spokeswoman for the NSW Education Department said public schools had a secure and filtered internet service, and teachers monitored the use of digital devices. Inappropriate use by students is dealt with in accordance with school procedures, she said.

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