The South Australian Government has launched a ban on mobile phones in public high schools to curb bullying. However, while smartphones exacerbate bullying, banning them alone will not fix the problem, writes Melissa Marsden.
THE SOUTH AUSTRALIAN Government launched a ban on mobile phones in public high schools recently.
From 30 January students are no longer permitted to use mobile phone devices either during class or breaks, in a move aimed at curbing anti-social behaviour and bullying.
The policy places high schools in line with their primary school and interstate counterparts. Students will be required to ensure mobile phones are switched off and locked away for the whole school day.
South Australian Education Minister Blair Boyer hailed the scheme, arguing the ban will help prevent bullying and harassment. But this reasoning, while an excellent idea in theory, fails to take into account the complexities of the issue.
Bullying and harassment are not new phenomena. And while smartphones have exacerbated this issue, they are not the root cause. Nor will banning them magically see an end to such malevolence.
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While an effective concept in theory, the phone ban seems more of a band-aid than an actual cure. The South Australian Government has said that exemptions will be permitted for: students who require their devices for medical reasons; students with disabilities or learning difficulties who use their devices as learning support and students who use their phones for the translation of English.
Only a decade ago, I was a student who, despite being disadvantaged by disabilities, sought to engage in school as much as possible. I also took my mobile phone to school daily to contact family members and ease the social isolation I felt.
The phone was left in my school bag until recess and lunch, at which point I would fish it out and when class resumed promptly put it away again.
As a child with a disability, the nature of my social isolation often made engaging in activities outside the classroom difficult. I was generally excluded from play and activities with others. I was bullied and often forced to retreat to an isolated area, using my mobile phone to contact family so as not to feel alone.
A report found 47.9 per cent of students with disabilities in 2018 experienced bullying and 21 per cent were excluded while attending the very schools that are supposed to protect and encourage them.
To tackle bullying behaviour, more must be done to encourage inclusion and understanding of diversity - something which should be aimed for regardless of the environment we find ourselves in.
The Department for Education South Australia has provided guidelines for how to improve the school environment to reduce bullying, including increasing opportunities for playground social interaction, public showcasing of school values and eliminating blind spots where bullying may occur.
Indeed, without the perceived safety of the online sphere to protect the cowardice that accompanies online bullying, individuals are just as likely to return to bullying in the physical world as in cyberspace.
The assumptions framing these guidelines again fail to deal with the core issues behind schoolyard bullying - and indeed the reality of those who experience it.
It is all well and good to ban mobile phones, however, without addressing inattention and bullying, nothing will really change. Bullying will continue to fester in the schoolyard, with children promptly pretending there is no issue when approached by teachers unless bullying is effectively addressed.
Former Federal Education Minister Tanya Plibersek said she supports the scheme which she believes will return students' focus from social media to schoolwork.
While this is certainly the case for some, there is merit to argue that in the case of effective teaching and engaging subject matter, students will want to engage with learning material regardless of the presence of digital devices.
As a high school student just ten years ago, I observed many of my peers who spent time on their phones as being either those not engaged in the subject matter either out of lack of interest or deficits in the quality of the resources.
For others, inattention could be traced to the curriculum's rigid structure and implementation that saw individual challenges, skills, interests and future goals overlooked.
Children will refuse to engage in course content if it fails to engage them and find alternative means of distraction. Students may just as easily revert to scrawling notes on torn pieces of paper, rolling them up and throwing them across the room to distract themselves.
Isolation will not give way to tolerance until children are taught, not just by schools but the whole community, that cruelty and abuse are not acceptable regardless of where or indeed on what platform they occur.
Indeed, asking students to place mobile phones in lockers during class hours only to be removed during breaks and at the end of school addresses only a tiny aspect of the issue of bullying.
It is clear the reality of a ban on phones in schools remain far larger and more nuanced than has been portrayed.
Melissa Marsden is a passionate advocate for social justice and a self-confessed political junkie. You can follow Melissa on Twitter @MelMarsden96.