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OPINION: 'Mobile phone bans are making our kids irrelevant in the world they're growing into.'

The humble pencil. It exists as a writing and drawing tool. Great things have come about as a result of this tool, both in terms of education and world-changing influence. But the pencil also makes for an excellent weapon. It can be used as a missile or a dagger.

The mobile phone. It exists as a communication and research tool. Great things have come about as a result of this tool, both in terms of education and world-changing influence. But the mobile phone also makes for an excellent weapon. It can be used as a distraction or to emotionally injure.

Got teenagers who stay up all night using their phones? This might help. Post continues below.

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We allow pencils in schools despite their potential danger because we know they assist in the learning environment. Children understand the intended purpose of a pencil, yet children are smart enough and creative enough to know that it can also be used as a weapon. When the novelty of a pencil has worn off, responsibility tends to dominate its use. Yes, there is always the risk that children will resort to using a pencil as a weapon, but it is our responsibility as adults to instil values that help children to make wise and caring choices. When children falter, we have a responsibility to help them learn from their mistakes, to restore damaged relationships, and to work towards behavioural improvement in the future. Confiscation may form part of this process for a period of time.

In today’s world of mobile devices, we must balance the risk posed by technology with the opportunities and benefits of technology. And, in the school context, we have two options.

The first option is that we can transparently bring some of our students’ biggest questions to the surface and see these as teachable moments, with the goal of maturing our children in a world of cybersafety. Not dissimilar to a protractor, compass, or old-school library catalogue, we can endeavour to teach the correct and safe way to use a device, empowering students to then use it as a tool to support discovery and learning. This option requires great effort and commitment from an entire community and it won’t always be a smooth ride. Mistakes will happen along the way. But we know that when we authentically trust and support children with responsibility, such as monitoring their own technology use and weighing it up against their ultimate goals, they generally rise to the challenge.

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Option two, by contrast, is to simply ban devices thereby teaching nothing. The latter is a quick and easy perceived solution to cyber safety and classroom focus. The problem with option two, however, is that children will simply evade the ban – boldly or by stealth – and adults’ ability to educate on safe usage will be lost.

The banning of mobile phones in NSW, Victoria, WA and now Tasmanian state schools serves to maintain the novelty of phones in the eyes of students. It aligns with ‘quick and easy’ option two. While mobile phones are seen as a novelty, we can be guaranteed that experimentation and underground activity will be the likely outcome. We are essentially making a rod for our community’s back in the long term.

Mobile phone ban
"Children will simply evade the ban – boldly or by stealth – and adults’ ability to educate on safe usage will be lost." Image: Getty.

Cyberbullying, sending text messages during lesson time, social media distractions: these are not new problems. They are age-old challenges presented in a digital platform. Technology is the tool through which we see these challenges in today’s world. Do we solve these challenges through compliance and banning? Or do we equip our children for the world in which they live by engaging them and helping them to understanding their digital responsibilities towards themselves and others?

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Incidentally, Japan banned students’ mobile devices in schools in 2009. The ban was reviewed in May this year, and has since been lifted. Schools in Japan are now empowered to determine their own guidelines in relation to student use of mobile devices.

Managing communities of people and making decisions for them does not mature a nation, but it does dumb down a population. We need to be careful that, in our over-regulated country, we do not make top-down decisions out of fear that something may go wrong. The reality is, something will go wrong. It always does. (Think back to the pencil.) But we need to have confidence that we have engaged in a foundation of quality home-and-school education and instilled the appropriate values to lead children to make wise choices.

Technology is not going away. So much of the way the world gets things done is through digital means. If we aren’t embracing and facilitating digitally-literate classrooms, we are assisting our children in becoming irrelevant in the world they are growing into. Students need to be equipped with the right tools and attitudes to use technology responsibly and to see how technology can help make a positive and meaningful impact in the world. And they need the adults in their lives to model responsible use of technology.

And so I choose option one. To provide a blanket ban is a mistake. We must teach the responsible and productive use of devices. We cannot allow adult fear to impact the development of responsible digital habits among children. I would rather see children learn responsible use of technology in the safety and security of the school environment than in the potentially unsolicited company of their curious peers.

Jane Mueller is the principal of Living Faith Lutheran Primary School in Brisbane. Connect with her on Twitter: @jane_n_mueller.

Feature image: Getty.

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