Is the school phone ban based on moral panic?

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This article was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald here

Which method would you use to impound the mobile phone of every high school student in the state? Would it be a cupboard with a lock and key, combination lock, or assigning the phones to heavy-duty secure lockable boxes?  

The Victorian Government is set to spend $12.4 million on storage to house students’ mobile phones that they are now banned from using. They spend they say, is a way of helping students adjust!

In an ever-decreasing Education budget environment, this spend feels like a crime. Imagine if schools had a $12million budget boost to use on learning. It could mean additional teachers, up to date curriculum, professional learning for teachers, support staff.

On what basis?

While the ban on mobile phones in schools has been decided, it has never been clarified on what basis the decision was made. No evidence has been cited that clearly shows that banning phones will decrease cyber bullying, or that a ban will mean that students will listen more in class. I work in the field of Education and there is little evidence to show that teachers recklessly allow students to scroll their Instagram feed during class. If the ban is not based on evidence, then it has other reasoning.

This ban and the similar ban in NSW schools are products of the discourse of fear and distrust that has been created around young people using technology. We are seeing this fear manifest in similar no-evidenced based policies in other areas of education, health and social policies. For example, the classification of Gaming Disorder by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been heavily critiqued because there is not the evidential weight to support this classification. Rather key international mental health organisations stated that the WHO gave into the moral panic that is surrounding young people’s use of technology. This is not the way that policy should be developed.

This panic is fed by a constant media barrage by the media. A recent study analysed 350 print and online news articles on teens and social media published over 12 month found that the over-arching message communicated is that teens’ relationship with social media is a dysfunctional and dangerous liaison, and that parents and adults should beware. Panic sells! This panic also affects research, as the majority of research that is funded begins with this stance, and then focuses on how to keep children safe from technology.


Where does this leave us?

This leaves us in a Catch 22 situation. The result is that we are making unqualified policies in the name of 'protecting the children'. It gives adults a clear conscious that we are keeping kids away from the treacherous tentacles of technology. The ethical repercussions for young people however are huge!

In reality, we are doing this generation of children a disservice because we are not supporting them to live well in the era in which they are growing up. If cyber bullying is the issue in schools, then we need to support young people to get better at dealing with the behaviours that manifest in online abuse over banning the technology itself.

Moving forward

Adults are in a groove of talking badly about young people; the inadequacies they refer to are mostly tied to youth’s technology use. Handing over your phone to be locked away at school sends the message to young people that they are not to be trusted and they are not good enough. Imagine growing up in this environment. This discourse of fear and distrust is changing their educational environment, children’s relationship with their parents and teachers. It is damaging their faith in adults and reinforcing a them V’s us mentality.

Let’s take the moral panic off the table and shift direction. Instead let’s aim to create an environment of support for this generation of young people who are in our care. One that is built on real understanding.