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#AskNicolaMorgan 10: “Should students be allowed to have their phones in school?”

Apologies for the slight pause in the answers from the #AskNicolaMorgan competition: I’ve been exceptionally busy with some very exhausting events. I particularly wanted to answer this question because it’s a hot topic in schools, both when I talk to students and when I do INSET days. Students and staff/parents want to know. Also, the Government started wading into the topic when a Government Minister (not even the Education Secretary but the Culture Minister) wrote that schools should ban phones in classrooms. It’s possible I might know more about this than a politician, as I’ve studied the research, thought through the implications and discussed this extensively in many types of school around the world. I’m not saying this means I am definitely right and they are definitely wrong but I am saying that my opinion might be worth listening to.

The specific question comes from Haggerston School in Hackney, who brilliantly won the Silver medal in the competition. I am very excited to be going to meet the students next week.

Their full question went like this:

“Do you think students should be allowed to bring their own devices to school and, if so, what rules should be put in place to encourage responsible behaviour?”

I’m assuming we’re talking about secondary schools.

Secondary schools are – or should be – about teaching skills for life. One of the most important skills for life is self-control. We do not learn self-control or any other skill by not practising it. So, if we need to exercise self-control over our devices, as we certainly do, because they are extremely compelling, we need to be able to practise that skill.

Additionally, when students are not allowed their phones/devices in school, they typically access them the moment they are able to afterwards and have a tendency to spend all evening on them. When parents try to say they need to come off them to do their homework, have a meal, chat to their family, do something else, the student legitimately says, “But I’ve been off my phone all day.” When someone is starving, as soon as the food is available they will usually over-eat.

So, a binge situation rather than a healthy controlled situation.

Students (and indeed adults) need the following:

  1. To understand the negative consequences of spending too much time online/on-screen and of not being in control. (The Teenage Guide to Life Online is the only place I know where you can get the full range of this information, without exaggeration, without sensationalism.)
  2. To be able to work out (with guidance where necessary, especially in younger years) what would be appropriate and healthy use.
  3. To have support in achieving those goals.

“Support in achieving those goals” can indeed include set times when phones will not be used. Those set times are very likely to include lesson times, unless the teacher wants the students to use their phones for an exercise or task.

Therefore, good, strong, informed, healthy school policy will usually include the stipulation that teachers can and should expect or not allow phones to be switched on or visible during the great majority of a lesson time. But that is not the same as banning phones in lessons.

In the adult world, I believe that phones should also be away, out of sight, sound and use when people are in a meeting or working on a task they need to concentrate on. So, it should be acceptable for a team leader or colleague to say, “OK, so that we can do our best work now and focus on the speaker or task in hand, phones away.” That should become the norm, the sensible, polite, practical and correct way to behave in order to get work done and show respect. It shouldn’t need to be said. I’m frankly shocked that it does need to be said to adults.

And these lessons should start young.

If, on the other hand, we set phones up as devices that are only for adults to control, as things that are bad for kids and good for adults – or like alcohol, for example, something of which you get to have as much as you want but only once you’re 18 – then we create entirely the wrong attitude and habits. Phones become even more desirable, even more like chocolate cake, even more tempting. We put them on the pedestal of desirable. We make them more tempting.

Of course, phones are distracting. We know this. Very distracting indeed. And therefore it’s clear that we need to limit our use.

But we need to self-limit. Adults should be better at this than teenagers (but they often aren’t). Adolescents may need more help than adults. And I accept that taking a phone away from someone and not letting them use it certainly “helps” the person not access it. But it doesn’t help them learn self-control.

Self-control comes when a person recognises that he or she should self-regulate and chooses for him or herself to put the phone away. Or gives it to a friend or adult to look after. Sets a goal – “I’ll work for an hour without my phone” – and sticks to it. Asks for help, yes, but asks for it.

Self-control is not easy to learn. It’s easier for schools to ban phones. And certainly if you ban phones you create a short-term gain: better concentration for that period of time. but you don’t teach the most important skill for life: self-control, self-regulation. you’re having a short-term gain and long-term pain.

And you’re not doing your job as a school.

So, while I understand schools wanting to ban phones and while I agree that there absolutely should be device-free times in every school and adult working day, and while it doesn’t surprise me that a certain MPs would want to make another rule for schools without thinking about the consequences, I think the aim should be that we all learn to self-impose those device-free times.

Too ambitious?

I think we – and young people – can do it if we properly understand first why we should self-regulate and second why it’s so hard in the case of our screens. That knowledge leads to some simple strategies. As I suggest, one of the strategies is to put your phone out of sight – but you do it yourself; it doesn’t work so well if it’s done for you.

I had a young research assistant when I was writing The Teenage Guide to Life Online. After reading the research, she decided for herself that she was going to change her screen and social media habits. She could see why and how she’d benefit and she could see how which strategies might work for her. She was proud of her efforts. If I’d just told her to do it, it wouldn’t have worked.

Of course, a Year 7 student is different from a Y11 student and may need more help, more guidance, more rules and even restrictions. But the explicit and implicit message should always be:

“You need to learn when are the right and wrong times to have your phone in your hand. You need to practise self-control and the more you practise the better you will become. There are strategies we can teach you which will help but ultimately this will be down to you.

“Your brain is in your hands and you can control your fingers.”

Answers to more questions coming soon. For the other answers, put Ask Nicola Morgan in the search box.

See you next week, Haggerston students!

 

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