Why are parents opposing a school phone ban?

Wait, isn’t this a parent’s dream come true?

From October, mobile phones will be banned in all NSW public high schools. That’s right. For once, someone else will be prying the mobile phones out of our kids’ bare hands. It won’t be us parents having to, yet again, be the emotional narcs who ruin their emotional contact high, by tearing them away from Snapchat and WhatsApp, and in the process hopefully boost their mental health.

This is why, on hearing today’s announcement, I feel as astounded as Lois Lane, watching wide-eyed after Superman flies into a waterfall to rescue a boy who’s falling, like a rag doll, into it, in Superman II.

“It potentially erodes their belief that they can manage things on their own,” says clinical psychologist Dr Danielle Einstein, about a child’s reliance on their phone. Credit:iStock

So why are some parents so pissed?

“If I can’t get a hold of my kid and something happens to him, you’re personally responsible,” wrote one parent on Twitter this morning, under NSW Premier Chris Minns’ announcement that he was coming good on his pre-election promise, and will be banning mobile phones across the state – in high school classrooms, recesses and lunchtimes – from the first day of Term 4.

Another parent wrote on Twitter that Minns must “obviously” not pick up his three sons from school because if did, he’d understand “how regularly times & plans change & how being able to just message your child makes a huge difference”.

Yet another parent chimed in on Instagram with concern about kids who have no one to sit with at school. “And they have their phones at recess and lunch so they don’t feel so alone,” they wrote.

Now, I can feel, like it was yesterday, the pit in my stomach as I sat alone at lunchtime, in Year 7. I had no one to eat with – I was at a new school, and hadn’t yet found my people – and sat alone at McDonald’s, across the road from my school.

“I’m just waiting for a friend,” I lied, when a girl from my year came over and pretended to be friendly to me in order to steal some of my french fries. The sting of humiliation bloomed across my cheeks.

“At the moment [at] many schools across New South Wales, kids are on their mobile devices right through recess and lunchtime,” says NSW Premier Chris Minns, pictured in Sydney earlier this month with two of his three sons.Credit:Edwina Pickles

But this sort of discomfort, horrible though it is, is an important part of our emotional development. And having a phone, in a situation like this, can impede our ability to learn how to rise above inevitable emotional pain, says Dr Danielle Einstein, a clinical psychologist and adjunct in the psychology department at Macquarie University.

“That would be a really big thing if you’re socially anxious, you’re using your phone to sort of hide behind, and to reach for safe people rather than taking that risk [to speak to someone],” says Einstein, who researches the impact of mobile devices on the mental health of young people. “They allow us to exit or escape a situation… and it means that in the moment they’re not enduring the tricky feelings that they have, while they’re in the playground sitting maybe with a new group, and if they’re looking at their phone, is the person next to them going to talk to them? The phone interferes with the natural interaction, the natural friendships that develop, [which] sometimes can take time. They’re not necessarily immediate. We have to take a bit of a risk and sit there, and wait.”

In this circumstance, retreating to the phone is a “safety behaviour” that many anxious kids – and adults – rely on. And it impedes our ability to develop resilience.

“They stop us from learning that we would have been fine without it [the phone],” says Einstein.

“I see it in the practice all the time,” she says. “I have adolescents and young adults and adults coming in with anxiety or depression or other sorts of psychological problems, that can be fixed quite quickly once you educate them and help them to put better limits and teach them about how they’re hiding with their phones… It’s a big reason for this escalation in need for psychological services and demand.”

A phone ban at school could also boost resilience more widely, whether a child has anxiety or not.

“In the old days, if you caught the bus to the wrong stop, you might have had to talk to the bus driver, or someone else at a local shop, who might have directed you and helped you then to work out what to do next, or made a call, whereas now, phones allow us to short circuit people around us, and only rely on their parents,” says Einstein. The end result? “It potentially erodes their belief that they can manage things on their own.“

Those parents who are worried their child’s safety will be compromised because of lack of access to their phone can be reassured, too. While up to 320,000 students will be affected by the ban, each NSW public school will decide how it will be rolled out “in a way that makes sense for their school communities”, NSW Deputy Premier and Education Minister Prue Car said today. In other words, it’s likely that students will have their phones on them while they’re travelling to and from school.

There will also be exemptions to the ban, like students who need a phone to monitor a health condition, or those who need it for educational purposes under the instruction of a teacher, as Minns has previously stated.

For Minns, the primary goal of the ban is to enable kids to focus on learning. (The NSW ban follows existing mobile phone bans in high schools in South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia.) This is backed by the so-called “Brain Drain” study, says Einstein, which showed that if someone has their phone on their desk, even if it’s silent and upside down, it takes more attention away from us, than if it were in another room.

To this, I would add that having to rise above emotional discomfort will aid them later, when it comes to relating to others. I told my kids about my McDonald’s loneliness just the other night, over dinner.

I get things wrong seven ways til Sunday, with my kids. But one thing that has always comforted them, throughout the years, is when I’m able to relate to one of their struggles because I’ve experienced it, too. I don’t usually have a solution. And they don’t usually need one. They just want to know that they’re not alone. Don’t we all?

with Lucy Cormack

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