National needs to go straight for the social media companies. (Image: Archi Banal)
National needs to go straight for the social media companies. (Image: Archi Banal)

OPINIONOpinionDecember 7, 2023

I’m a high school student. Here’s why National’s phone ban is a bad idea

National needs to go straight for the social media companies. (Image: Archi Banal)
National needs to go straight for the social media companies. (Image: Archi Banal)

National’s ban on phones in schools is poorly researched, won’t work and misses the real problem, argues high-schooler Caspar Levack.

On a typical weekday, I wake up, hurriedly get ready, and rush off to school, barely making it there in time. At this point, because I haven’t had the chance yet, I check the news on my phone. For the first few minutes of my first-period class, I read the headlines across a few websites, maybe an article or two, then close my phone and get on with work. 

It’s fine. My teachers are fine with it, I stay up-to-date, and the world is otherwise unchanged. But our brave, shiny new government has plans to end this tyranny of high schoolers reading the news.

Many schools have already restricted or banned phone usage during the day; my school is not among these. Currently, students are welcome to use their phones during breaks, but are discouraged from using them during class time. Of course there are exceptions, but most phone usage at school is relatively innocuous. My employed friends use their phones to confirm shifts with their bosses; I often check my emails; a family member might text a random anecdote; or, you know, we check the time. 

Some students do use social media during class, and I agree there are some issues to unpack there. But ultimately, if the teacher thinks you are being distracted by your phone during class, they will tell you to turn it off. And if phones are getting out of control and becoming a school-wide problem, those schools can ban them. 

I really do empathise with school staff dealing with a cohort of students who are completely unengaged with learning. But National’s policy assumes this is happening at all schools and with all students, which from personal experience is just not the case. Again, if phones are a systemic problem at individual schools, they can already ban them.

So what does National’s policy actually say? On its website, there are just under 600 words written about the policy, of which only about 100 are about the policy itself and the action that needs to be taken. The rest of the text is a mix of complaints about Labour’s handling of education and platitudes about its importance.

In the 100 words of the policy containing the meat, there’s reference to a UNESCO report which forms the basis of National’s claim that phones are causing a decline in academic achievement and therefore need to be banned. The problem, however, is that UNESCO’s report doesn’t reach this conclusion. In fact, the report is very careful not to suggest a blanket ban. 

What UNESCO actually argues is that, although banning phones may sometimes be necessary for specific schools, the best approach is to carefully integrate the technology in class so that kids learn about both the benefits and risks of phone use, in a way that helps them understand when and where it’s appropriate to use them. 

Not the end of the world. (Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty)

National’s policy also refers to a World Economic Forum article, itself based on the same UNESCO report, but with an alarming and inaccurate headline: “UNESCO calls for a ban on phones in schools. Here’s why.” Given that the UNESCO report is 500 pages long, you can imagine a lot of people just reading this headline and getting the false impression it justifies National’s policy. But a Swedish study found that their country’s blanket ban of phones in schools had not had any positive impact on student performance. In an effort to justify their policy, National cites a report that doesn’t support their arguments and which actively calls for a different approach to management of technology in schools. 

But even if National’s policy were evidence-based (we can but wish), what about the details about how it will be implemented? Two points are worth bringing up here. Firstly, National MPs have said that, in the absence of phones, parents and guardians can still contact their child through the school office, which is how things were done pre-cellphone, and which worked fine.

However, I can think of many cases where the school office really doesn’t need to know about the conversation between a student and their parent. For example, if a parent wants to contact their child to tell them a doctor’s appointment has been rescheduled, currently they can just text them. With a cellphone ban, the school must act as a middleman, invading the privacy of the student just to relay the message. 

Secondly, National has proposed exemptions for students with learning or health challenges who could benefit from phone access. I like this detail, but worry that it runs the risk of othering these students, who without a ban would blend right in.

The policy makes no distinction between primary, intermediate, and secondary schools. I can’t comment on the situation of phone usage in primary and intermediate. There’s potentially more of an argument to be made about phone harm there, but I’m not a child development expert, I’m just a youth. I can only comment on my experience as a high school student, where the ban should definitely not apply.

I asked a number of my peers about this policy and how they used their phones at school and, ignoring one un-publishable comment about the National Party, many shared positive benefits, such as taking photos of notes the teacher has written or listening to music with friends during lunch. While I understand the appeal of this policy, as phones can be harmful, they’re also wildly useful. 

There’s also the problem with implementing and enforcing this policy. I can’t imagine my teachers trying particularly hard to enforce it: it’s illegal to vape on the premises of a school, and that is a way more serious social concern, yet students do it in their thousands. If the Ministry of Education can’t enforce a ban on vapes, how can anyone expect students to respect a ban on phones? The policy says it’s up to individual schools to decide how to enforce it, which is not how I want my underpaid teachers and school staff to spend their time. 

If National wants to improve the lives of teenagers while also reining in technology, there is absolutely a path there: go after the social media companies. National MPs and much of the media commentators often conflate phone use with social media use. The latter is legitimately harmful; it’s designed to be addictive and fritters the attention spans of its users. Properly regulating social media companies would be popular policy that makes the government look really good. Why not do that instead?

If National wants to support young people, why is it ignoring the constructive arguments young people provide, and failing to deal with the real problem? National’s gung-ho ban is shallow thinking.

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