Should schools manage or ban the use of smartphones?

Opinion: many schools have already banned smartphones, but managing usage of the devices may help students, teachers and parents

Children’s use of smartphones has been all over the media for months ever since France brought in a ban on smartphone use in schools. Australia and Ireland have recently been debating similar policies. A plethora of reports over the past five years have linked smartphone use to increasing rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. In the classroom, the presence and use of smartphones has been found to result in lower grades, productivity and performance. The UK Health Secretary recently announced that 8,000 additional counsellors are being brought into schools to help students with growing digital pressures.

A growing field of research has begun focusing on the dark side of social media, fuelling recent debate on whether children should be given smartphones before secondary school. Furthermore, leading technology company bosses identify that the constant use of smartphones is misuse, resulting in many social media executives limiting their children’s screen time.

With growing scientific evidence of the detrimental impact smartphone use can have on children, many schools within Ireland and the UK such as Blennerville National School, Eton College, Fortismere, Shiplake College, West Buckland School, Latymer Upper School and Brighton College have already banned smartphones.

However is an all-out ban the solution? There are practical challenges with a smartphone ban such as a legal responsibility for the school to store confiscated smartphones alongside providing resources to enforce the ban. Furthermore, there is no denying the positive benefits smartphones can have as a learning tool. Digital tools can complement traditional teaching methods which can actually lead to higher levels of engagement with particular students and help resource strapped schools.

A solution could be to manage smartphone use through educating young people and parents alike on acceptable use of smartphones. Furthermore there are parental control and screen time apps which can help individuals monitor their time online and provide self-controlled restrictions on their smartphones. However, smartphone addiction is prevalent where app usage creates dophamine similar to a drug or gambling addiction which can make self-control difficult . Furthermore, smartphones form such a big part of many individuals' lives that an outright ban can cause anxiety due to emotional and social attachment.

A Northern Ireland based start-up company called Xerofone claim to provide a solution to helping society manage smartphone use through their software which  can remotely lock smartphones within homes, schools or businesses. Their software allows the user to timelock downloaded apps (social media, games, gambling apps etc.), the camera and ability to browse the internet through 3G/4G or wifi. The handset functionality of making and receiving phone calls and basic text message are retained. Only those with administrative control can override the settings so, unlike other apps, the device owner cannot turn off the settings.

The software effectively removes control from the device user, removing temptation and distraction. They deem their software to be a perfect solution to the debates on smartphone use in schools removing the need for a complete ban. With their software, teachers can develop time slots in lessons where students can use their smartphones for learning and at other times, their smartphone functionality is turned off effectively turning smartphones into dumbphones. 

Xerofone recently conducted trials of their software within Rockport School in Northern Ireland with the help of Ulster University. The trial found that parents and staff welcomed the software, with teaching staff saying that it would help student engagement in the classroom.  Headmaster, George Vance said "I can see how Xerofone will have a very positive impact on education for both teachers and students. It stops smartphone distraction during the school day without us needing to confiscate phones therefore it has to be good". 

Student feedback from the trial was positive with many stating they did not miss social media and were relieved that the temptation to check their phones being out of their hands since it helped them to concentrate more in class. One student identified "this is how phones ought to be". Discussions are now in place to implement the software into Rockport School in the near future.

Accoridng to Macartan Mulligan, CEO of Xerofone, "with use over time, our software may not be needed as social norms around smartphone use change". Therefore their software could almost be deemed as a self-help tool where it is hoped that use of their software will begin to change behaviours and develop norms of the social stigma of smartphone overuse.

Has the growing number of studies and statistics documenting the negative impact of smartphone use meant that we have become a society that cannot self-regulate our smartphone use? If this is true, the decision now lies on whether more schools follow suit and implement bans or instead use software and tools from companies such as Xerofone to change behaviours so we can have the benefits of smartphones whilst not letting them control our lives.

Mike PalmerComment