Minister for Education urged to ban use of phones as learning tools in classrooms

Total ban on ownership of smartphones for under-13s ‘fraught with difficulty’, Catherine Martin says

Minister for Education Norma Foley has been urged to instruct secondary schools to ban the use of phones as a learning tool in classrooms because it is too much of a distraction for students.

Green Party Senator Róisín Garvey said it was a “huge concern” that many students still have their phones on them in classrooms and it was too much of a temptation to use it other than for schoolwork.

She said that “some schools even let students use the phone to take photographs or to use [Microsoft] Teams”, a workplace messaging app.

“Other schools have a box at the top of the classroom and the phone has to go into the box, but there is no phone on students in classrooms,” Ms Garvey said.

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She said some schools have computer tablets and can use Teams, but a lot of schools do not and use phones.

“We really need to move away from allowing any phones in classrooms,” Ms Garvey said, adding that if the Minister “has to buy a tablet for every student in the country it would be much cheaper than the amount of money we’re spending on mental health issues for young people in Ireland”.

Ms Garvey was speaking during the Seanad debate on a Fine Gael motion calling for a ban on the ownership of smartphones below the age of 13.

Fine Gael Senator Mary Seery Kearney said “we need to take major steps to deal with this and the Government needs to lead” on it.

Many schools have already taken the initiative to put in place a voluntary code banning smartphone ownership and restricting their use, but Ms Seery Kearney said a “cultural tone” needs to be set by Government that the ownership of phones should not be allowed before the age of 13. She also called for legislation to enforce the digital age of consent, set at 16.

Ms Seery Kearney highlighted research from CyberSafeKids that almost one-quarter (24 per cent) of six-year-olds have their own smartphone while 45 per cent of 10-year-olds are allowed use smartphones in their bedroom. The research also found that 28 per cent of parents use parental controls while 20 per cent feel the good the internet could bring their children outweighs the risks.

Acknowledging that parents “have a huge role”, Ms Seery Kearney said that “maybe they don’t consider there are dangers”. But “at the heart of this business model is an addictive piece of engineering that is designed to capture youth at the cost of sport, physical activities, social development social interaction”.

On Tuesday the consultative youth committee of the Ombudsman for Children attended an Oireachtas meeting. Ms Seery Kearney said the committee is made up of teenagers and “all of them condemned the ownership of smartphones before the age of 13″.

“Some of them had phones before the age of six,” the Senator said. Such early ownership caused mental health issues “and they wished they’d never had a phone”.

Minister for Media Catherine Martin said that while she understood the concern about the matter, banning smartphone ownership for under-13s was “fraught with difficulty” and raises complex questions about regulation.

She also warned that parents might not support such a unilateral ban. “There are genuine reasons why parents might want or need their child to own a smartphone,” Ms Martin said.

“Many parents, correctly, will feel that it should be their decision and they are the ones who know their children best.”

Ms Martin said that in regulating the matter there would be difficulty in identifying the “owner” of the phone and then identifying “who would be liable for sanction for a breach of any ban would be complicated, given that the purchaser and user of a phone are not necessarily the same”.

It is further complicated, she said, by the option of online sales from other EU member states.

“Banning an age cohort from owning a smartphone in one EU member state would raise issues with regard to the EU single market principles of freedom of movement of goods and services,” Ms Martin said.

She believed that “while the concerns about children owning smartphones are understandable, the key issue appears to be one of access to social media and specifically access to social media applications on a smartphone by children, rather than ownership”.

“For this reason, the Government is focusing on dealing with access and usage of smartphones through hybrid community and national initiatives,” Ms Martin said, including the policy guidance issued by the Minister for Education called “Keeping Childhood Smartphone Free”.

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