Finnish educator and Gonski Institute Professor, Dr Pasi Sahlberg, sheds light on the smartphone in schools debate and reveals why he believes a blanket ban isn’t the answer.
After their first day of school, children from a school in the city of Espoo in Southern Finland brought home a letter from their principal. It told parents disturbing smartphones would be removed from students, even forcefully, if nothing else helps. “That is illegal,” some parents reacted. The principal responded, “It is according to the regulations in Finland.”
The technology youngsters carry with them everywhere is causing headaches among teachers, and it’s not just in Finland. As a consequence, authorities are acting to try to solve the problem.
Recent headlines in Victoria revealed mobile phones would be banned in all government primary and secondary schools across the state. In Ontario, a daily newspaper reported a blanket mobile phone ban wasn’t the best solution. These news headlines both point to a real problem but offer opposing solutions.
Even when they should be learning at school or sleeping at night, many students just can’t stay away from their smartphones. With that said, what would be a smart fix to this growing problem in our schools?
Firstly, as adults we must realise that smartphones are everywhere. According to statistics portal Statista, over 95 per cent of Australians aged 12 to 24 have a smartphone and those devices are constantly in heavy use.
In a May 2018 study by Deakin University’s School of Psychology, led by lead researcher and psychology lecturer Dr Sharon Horwood, it was also reported that one third of young Australian smartphone users feel anxious if unable to regularly check their phones.
Many teachers and parents have reached the consensus that smartphones disturb children and affect school learning. Educators from that school in Espoo know this, and I agree too. Finland’s decline in international student assessments (for example in PISA) has happened at the same time as teenagers spend much more time staring at a digital screen. As a consequence, they read less books and longer stories. Similar trends of stagnated or worsening education performance have been noted in many developed nations recently, according to PISA results. Australia is not an exception.
Perhaps the most worrying is children’s declining mental health during the smartphone era. An international look at the state of young people’s wellbeing offers a grim picture. Consider this:
The National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland estimates 20 to 25 per cent of youths suffered mental health problems in 2017, an all-time high.
In the United States, professor Jean Twenge found that the number of American teenagers who feel joyless or useless jumped 33 per cent between 2010 and 2015 and there was a 50 per cent increase in depressive symptoms among teens.
An Alberta Teachers Association survey showed that 85 to 90 per cent of teachers think the number of children with emotional, social and behavioural problems in their schools has increased in the past five years.
Evidence from around the world suggests children don’t sleep enough, don’t eat enough healthy food, and do too little outdoor physical activity.
Kids in Australia are not okay either. Melbourne Psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg stated that in Australia, one in seven primary and one in four secondary students suffer mental health issues. Although we don’t know if smartphones are the primary cause of these problems, they may well be. So, for the sake of children’s wellbeing and learning, should smartphones simply be banned in schools, as has happened in Victoria?
Blanket bans are rarely the most effective ways to solve behavioural problems, especially among young people. Teenagers were born in a digital world, their parents were not.
Teens don’t know the world without smartphones. What young people are good at is finding a way around prohibitions.
From an educational perspective, a smartphone ban is an easy fix but not a smart move. A better solution is to teach children safe, responsible and healthy use of their smartphones. That isn’t easy, but it is possible. Many schools in Finland and Australia already do that. They know, as we all should, that education is the most effective tool in learning to control your own behaviours and live a healthier life. Rather than simply taking smartphones away from teenagers, parents and teachers should help them to live with and understand the benefits and risks related to having one with you all the time.
There are a range of things that can be done in schools and at home to teach children how to use smartphones safely and responsibly.
Put limits on use at home and at school
Many Australian teenagers spend more time watching digital screens than sleeping. Classroom work and homework often significantly contribute to daily screen time. Let’s teach children responsible and safe use of technology at school and at home. Allow children to figure out how to do that. Parents and teachers should be role models that demonstrate how to limit time on smartphones. At school, take regular digital diets. At home, log out of digital networks on the weekends.
Sleep more and better
Teenagers should sleep at least nine to 10 hours every night. Most teens don’t get that much sleep anymore. According to the Victorian Government, most adolescents only get 6.5 to 7.5 hours sleep per night, some even less. 70 per cent of teens suffer from sleep deprivation according to the same source. Let’s teach children the importance of adequate good sleep. At home, let’s shut off smartphones two hours before bedtime and keep them away from bedrooms.
Go out and play
Our children play less than we did when we were young. Many schools in Australia don’t provide recess or sufficient time for daily free outdoor play anymore. Parents tend to prefer structured educational afterschool programmes to unstructured outdoor play for their children. Let’s make 15-minute hourly recess a basic right for all children in every school. Let’s teach parents how play benefits their children and encourage them to play more with them outdoors every day. Encourage children to go out and play after school with parents or friends for at least 30 minutes every day.
Read more books
Children read less than before, and so do adults. Half of American children today, for example, love or like reading books for fun, compared to 60 per cent in 2010. International reading literacy survey PIRLS 2016 indicated a decline in recreational reading among Finnish children: only 35 per cent of 4th Graders read for pleasure. Boys read so little in Finland that one in eight is functionally illiterate. Similar trends are noted in Australia too.
Education is key
The purpose of these steps is to learn to control and change one’s own behaviours to live a better and healthier life. The often-cited New Zealand Dunedin Study and other longitudinal research show self-control and other executive functions learned in childhood are the best predictors of success in adulthood.
Smartphone bans issued to schools by governments in France, Ontario and Victoria address an important problem but it’s an inefficient cure. Firstly, parents should be advoked not to buy smartphones for primary school-aged children. Secondly, teachers and parents should work with teenagers to help them understand the effects of technology and how to use smartphones responsibly.
Education is, as many teachers and principals see it, a more effective solution than prohibition. A smartphone ban pushes the real problem under the carpet. Instead of barriers and bans we should spend more time with our children and understand their perspectives of the world we all share.