Phone bans in schools is a hotly debated topic, with polarising opinions between some teachers, school leaders and parents. News that NSW public high schools will implement phone bans from late 2023 has reignited this debate once again.
Banning phones in schools has become an Australian and global trend, proving popular with many parents, teachers and school administrators alike to target waning attention spans and increased incidence of cyber-bullying. However, do phone bans actually have the desired effects?
I’m often asked for my opinion, so I wanted to share my insights, what I’m hearing anecdotally from schools that have banned phones and what the available research actually tells us.
Now, I want to acknowledge at the outset, just how much of an impediment phones can be in the classroom. I work with schools and school leaders across the country who lament the fact that phones are often a source of distraction and that much of their pastoral care time is now devoted to dealing with tech-related issues, particularly cyber-bullying (most of which takes place outside of school hours). In the work I do with teachers and school leaders, I hear first-hand and often see how phones can distract students and impact their social connection and interactions. I don’t deny that for a second.
Whilst banning phones during school hours seems like an obvious and relatively simple solution to significant issues facing schools today, namely waning attention spans and cyber-bullying issues, the research doesn’t always substantiate these claims. Let’s take a moment to examine the research available.
There is some research that shows banning phones in schools does result in improved academic outcomes1, especially for low-achieving students, where the improvements were quite significant. However, other studies have shown no impact of phone bans on student performance, rejecting the notion of even small-size gains2.
In relation to cyber-bullying, a study has shown a reduction in bullying incidence3. Anecdotally, teachers and school leaders are reporting that cyber-bullying is still prevalent, even in schools who’ve implemented a phone ban. It’s just tending to happen outside of school hours, as has often been the case. It’s important to note that research also confirms that traditional bullying is still more prevalent than cyber-bullying4.
From the above synopsis of the research, it’s evident that there is much ambiguity in the research in this field. And that’s not surprising. This is a complex problem, requiring nuanced and thoughtful solutions.
We need to teach young people how to manage their digital devices and distractions. The skill of focused attention really is THE superskill of the 21st Century. In fact, I’ve been recently sharing in keynotes and seminars that our FQ (focus quotient) will be the biggest predictor of our success in life and indeed more important than our IQ and EQ. Our students are now living and learning in a digital world that’s been engineered to be distracting and appealing. It’s our responsibility, as educators and parents, to teach them how to manage their devices and master the skill of focused attention. This is an essential life skill.
Why phone bans aren’t the solution?
Blanket phone bans mean our students will bypass the opportunity to develop critical skills and self-regulation necessary to manage the digital intrusions that now permeate their days. These skills are the very same skills that many adults are currently struggling with, as digital distractions are now rife in the modern workplace, putting a huge dent in employees’ productivity and wellbeing5. It is critical that students learn to master these skills and habits, if school really is designed to prepare them for the workplace of the future. The image in this article encapsulates just how challenging it is for adults to manage their digital devices and how we all need to master these skills, not just our kids. This is why one of my most popular keynotes for school leaders and educators in 2021-2023 has been Taming Digital Distractions.
In the work I do with corporations, many employers and leaders are telling me they’re recruiting students from university, with impressive academic transcripts, but they’re entering the workforce and struggling because they haven’t yet mastered the skills required for sustained focus attention. They enter a workplace where they have unfettered access to their devices, and many lack the self-restraint to regulate their usage.
My other concern, as a researcher and a parent, is that if we apply a blanket ban, we make technology a forbidden fruit and we drive it underground. We want and need young people to see technology as a functional tool. We want them to form healthy and productive relationships with their devices.
We may ban phones, but this doesn’t stop students from engaging in group chats in Google Docs (as many of them are doing in schools with phone bans). We may ban phones, but many students still use smartwatches. We may ban phones, and students put one phone in a pouch or locker, only to pull out a decoy one, later on in the bathroom. If we’re truly preparing young people for a future that will no doubt be saturated with screens, then we’re doing them a disservice by banning phones. Instead, we need to teach young people how to use their phones respectfully and responsibly. These skills are not learned through osmosis. These skills are learned through lived experience and explicit instruction.
For example, in my keynote Taming Digital Distractions and student masterclasses on Digital Distractions, I share research that shows that seeing your phone, even if on silent and face down, can impair your cognitive performance. To tackle this problem, I share micro-habits to combat this such as putting your phone out of your line of sight whilst studying, muting non-essential notifications and turning your phone to grayscale when you want to optimise focus (FQ). These pragmatic solutions are grounded in research and relatively easy to implement and most importantly, will teach our students the critical skills to take back control of their devices (and not be a slave to the screen).
I’m also concerned about socio-economically disadvantaged students whose phone may be the only digital learning tool that they have access to during a school day. The school curriculum demands the use of digital technologies. I’m doubtful that schools will have access to the digital infrastructure to compensate for this shortfall.
I firmly believe that schools need to establish their own digital guardrails- the accepted digital norms, practices and principles that underpin how phones will be used at school (just like I do with corporate teams). These guardrails need to be established in collaboration with parents, teachers and students. We need to hear students’ voices as many recognise that their phones are a source of distraction and they’re hankering pragmatic solutions. Schools need to establish their ‘tech-spectations’ and guide young people to forge healthy digital habits and behaviours that will serve them, rather than enslave them.
- Beland, L. P., & Murphy, R. (2016). Ill communication: technology, distraction & student performance. Labour Economics, 41, 61-76.
Abrahamsson, S. (2020). Distraction or teaching tool: do smartphone bans in schools help students?
Baert, S., Vujić, S., Amez, S., Claeskens, M., Daman, T., Maeckelberghe, A., … & De Marez, L. (2020). Smartphone use and academic performance: correlation or causal relationship?. Kyklos, 73(1), 22-46.
- Kessel, D., Hardardottir, H. L., & Tyrefors, B. (2020). The impact of banning mobile phones in Swedish secondary schools. Economics of Education Review, 77, 102009.
- Beneito, P., & Vicente-Chirivella, Ó. (2022). Banning mobile phones in schools: evidence from regional-level policies in Spain. Applied Economic Analysis.
- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2021). Beyond Academic Learning: First Results from the Survey of Social and Emotional SKills. OECD.
- Udemy (2018). 2018 Workplace distraction report. Udemy in Depth. https://research.udemy.com/research_report/udemy-depth-2018-workplace-distractionreport/