The Federal Minister for Education and Training, Senator Simon Birmingham is recently reported as suggesting that hard working teachers and principals should be supported by the banning of smartphones in class.

Senator Birmingham said that smartphones in class are a distraction and a platform for bullying. The Senator was supported by Susan McLean, former member of the police force, who now advises parents and schools on cyber safety and the federal government as a member of its Cyber Safety Working Group.

Child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg, who also sits on the federal government’s Cyber Safety Working Group said smartphones should be banned in primary schools.

In France, Emmanuel Macron, in his presidential election campaign, promised to ban smartphones from primary and middle schools. Jean-Michel Blanquer, the French education minister, said the ban was also a public health message to families, going on to comment that that children should not be in front of a screen often before the age of seven.

This ban is planned to be implemented in September 2018, although there remains scepticism amongst parents and teacher groups about how the ban can be successful.

McKinnon Secondary College has banned smartphones. Students at McKinnon initiated the ban and thus secure their phones for the day in their lockers. Principal Pitsa Binnion commented that the playground had become much louder during morning tea and lunch times. She commented on the amount of laughter, with people interacting and socialising.

Researchers at the London School of Economics have concluded that smartphones should be banned from the classroom in order to help kids perform better in exams after a study carried out in four English cities, London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leicester. This conclusion is from a study titled, Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance. The study found that teenagers studying in schools which have banned smartphones perform better by an average of 6.4 percent, but those who benefitted most were lower achieving students with improvements as high as 14 percent.

Smartphones are a significant innovation that have had a profound influence on our community. Yet they have been around only 10 years and it is too early to be able to fully understand the long term ramifications of these devices and the software on them.

However, it is becoming clear that open access for young children is problematic, and access for teenagers needs to be monitored and have clear and sensible limits.

It is also very clear from research (Deloitte’s Mobile Consumer Survey 2016: The Australian Cut: Hyper connectivity: Clever consumption) that ill-considered use by responsible adults has negative ramifications. See previous article.

The key question is why are smartphones (and the software on them) problematic?

The answer is reasonably straightforward. It is not simply that smartphones can be a distraction to effective study in school or at home. It is not just that people can misuse the technology to bully others. It is more than smartphones being able to provide access to the young and vulnerable for the low life of humanity.

These are all important factors to be avoided but there are a number of other less obvious factors that are critically important.

Software and game designers, especially social media and game designers use knowledge from the fields of neuroscience and psychology to make their products interesting and engaging. They want us to feel good using their games or software. They are designed to engage us and keep us engaged. That is not necessarily a bad thing but we need to know and understand the effects.

Game designers develop games to utilise our neurochemical system so we are engaged with, and feel rewarded by their games. They tap into our neurochemical systems to change our levels of dopamine and adrenaline. Adrenaline gives us a rush of excitement and dopamine makes us feel good, feel alive. Social media platforms also tap into our dopamine and, in addition, oxytocin. Oxytocin is the neurochemical that makes us feel wanted and loved, even though social media is often more about likes and comparisons. Often the ‘likes’ and comparisons are about a fake reality and FOMO – fear of missing out, rather than real and caring relationships with people.

For some, social media, games and smartphones can become so engaging as to be habit forming, even addictive. They crave the neurochemical ‘hit’ that the game or activity provokes. It makes them feel good. This is especially so for the young, developing cognitive systems of children and teenagers.

Frances Jensen, Chair of Neurology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and author of The Teenage Brain says that what we already know about the brains of children and teenagers suggests giving a young person unfettered access to a smartphone is not wise.
A young person’s brain is very plastic and able to physically change in response to environmental influences. Flipping between different media (texting, using social media and rapidly switching among smartphone-based apps) has been linked in some research with lower levels of development of a region of the brain involved in emotion processing and decision making (anterior cingulate cortex). Other research has associated lack of development in this area with depression and addiction.

Jensen says that teenagers have a very active risk and reward system designed to allow them to learn but also allow them to become addicted much more quickly than adults.

While smartphones may not be the cause of teenage anxiety or other issues, after all teenage anxiety for example, existed long before smartphones existed. However, they may amplify the issue, turning a flicker of a flame into a consuming fire.

Unlike many of us, children and teenagers do not know of a world without smartphones. Even older people, those that have grown to be adults without smartphones have found phones to be habit forming according to the data from the Deloitte’s survey.

A smartphone means you can be online from nearly anywhere in the world for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. This makes it very tough, impossible for some people to disconnect, get away from it all, even for short periods of time and refresh. This is unhealthy!

Your physical, mental, emotional and social health requires down time to ponder, reflect, recharge and relax.