The national conversation around cyberbullying gathered intensity this week with calls for a total ban on smartphones in schools making front-page headlines across Australia.
But is a blanket ban too blunt an instrument to achieve the desired end? And if so, what would a more nuanced approach look like?
One thing all experts agree on: the problem of personal smartphones in schools is in urgent need of a solution.
Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham threw substantial political weight behind the proposed ban last weekend, responding to a challenge by cyber expert and self-styled “CyberCop” Susan McLean.
"Although learning to work with technology is essential,” Birmingham announced, “phones can be a distraction from lessons and a platform for bullying unless schools have the right policies in place.”
But what are the “right” policies, and how can schools implement them?
Our Digital Duty of Care
An adviser to the federal government’s Cyber Safety Working Group, McLean argues strongly that, in allowing students unrestricted online access, schools risk being sued for failure to provide duty of care.
Citing the recent tragic suicide of 14-year-old cyberbullying victim Amy “Dolly” Everett, McLean adds that schools that interpret their duty of care as an “offline” responsibility need a digital wake-up call.
“I am seeing the most violent, vulgar, horrible comments you can imagine,” she says. Suicide taunts are so commonplace, kids have begun using the acronym KYS. It stands for “Kill Yourself.”
“Duty of care is a legal tenet applicable to every school in Australia,” she notes - both online and offline.
Pornography at Recess?!
Cyberbullying isn’t the only risk to children’s welfare and well-being at school. Recent data has shown that on an average day, up to half of boys and girls are accessing (or attempting to access) adult sites during and immediately after school.
McLean notes kids are not only viewing hardcore porn on their personal smartphones - they are in some cases even creating porn during the schoolday.
Although most schools have firewalls in place to restrict content on the school network, protection doesn’t extend to students’ personal smartphones - which the vast majority of Aussie kids over the age of 10 own and bring to school.
Dealing with ‘Emergencies’
McLean scoffs at the widely held notion that children need phones to contact their parents in case of an emergency. “If there’s a real emergency and the child needs to speak to you, he can go to the school office,” she points out. “As for parents who can’t go six hours without contacting their child - I would say, you have issues. This is no way to raise resilient kids.”
Cyber Expert and former undercover internet detective Brett Lee agrees. “Schools need to ask themselves, what are the educational risks and the educational benefits to allowing kids unrestricted access to personal phones? The truth is, in most cases, there are no educational benefits. It’s all risks.”
Both McLean and Lee cite schools that have successfully implemented no-phone policies - that require students to hand in phones at the start of the school day, and retrieve them at the final bell. But Lee admits that the practice could present logistical and resource challenges for many schools.
Ban - or Manage?
“Plus, when we use the word ‘ban’ - it’s too black and white. In an ideal world, school communities would be better off if no child had access to a personal mobile device during the school day.”
In the real world, where many parents (and virtually all students) would object to an outright ban, Lee is a strong advocate for parental control software like Family Zone. “Family Zone is the perfect solution for managing kids’ personal devices at school - because it puts the parent in the driver’s seat, no matter where the child happens to be.”
McLean also offered a ringing endorsement. Although she supports a total ban on phones for younger kids - “They have no place whatsoever in primary school” - in secondary settings “phones should only be allowed if there are controls installed to bring the device into compliance with the school’s acceptable use policies.” And she recommends Family Zone as her preferred online control solution.
Need help setting up your Family Zone account? We’re here to help. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact your school’s IT specialist.