With cyberbullying tightening its grip on students, schools are under more pressure to prevent harm. Banning mobile phones and social media is one popular method that may be slowing student involvement in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.
By April Maung
A silent classroom may seem like a blessing, but when students are wordlessly tapping away at their devices, there may be something more sinister at work.
The way students conduct themselves online has become the new responsibility of teachers.
“We’ve always had a policy of no mobile phones at school,” says Elizabeth Diprose, the principal of Willoughby Girls High School.
“We need to be able to be confident that students are cyber safe in our school.”
By implementing a no-phone and social media policy, Willoughby Girls High School leads the growing list of schools using different methods to prevent cyberbullying.
The policy is effective from the minute students set foot on school grounds until the end of the school day.
“Students have all signed an agreement on enrolment that they will only access the Internet via our network which is managed by the Department of Education.”
Diprose says students are learn about ‘appropriate use of the Internet’ through programs with topics from responsible use of social media to copyright.
“That whole issue of cyber safety and cyber responsibility and bullying, is included as part of that [well-being] program across the six years the girls are at school,” says Diprose.
The results, for Willoughby Girls High School, are clear, with the policies breeding respect amongst students.
“When it comes to cyberspace there might be incidents but they’re absolutely minimum at school,” says Diprose.
“We know where our students are, we know what they’re doing so we are confident that they are safe inside our school and that they are cyber safe.”
In Australia, around 60% of the total population uses Facebook, with more than 35% of those users being children under the age of 18.
However, Chris Presland, president of Secondary Principals’ Council, says that banning phones in schools would affect the promotion of STEM education.
“It seems quite bizarre that we’re talking about banning the most obvious forms of technology at our disposal,” says Presland.
Presland says that schools should utilise technology to enhance learning and encourage safe online behaviour.
“It’s about the students and the teachers and the school community understanding how to approach educating students around cyber-safety.”
Presland says that finding a balance between safe use of technology and enhancing learning in the classroom is the key to future education.
For Diprose, however, Willoughby Girls’ no-phone policy aims to do more than just protect students.
“We want to make sure that they are engaging socially with the world, like they’re actually engaging actually with the world not virtually with the world at least for some of the time,” says Diprose.
“And yes, they do value the down time which is reflected in the volume of student voices in the playground at recess and lunch.”
Students are aware of the ways they are being controlled and monitored says Emily Quinn, a Year 12 student from Kincoppal Rose Bay High School.
“We have a program called NetBoxBlue. It pretty much blocks you from seeing anything they don’t want you to see. So like Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, some game websites,” says Quinn.
“I’ve needed to use a website for an assessment and it says, ‘this website’s been blocked’, because it contains stuff that they don’t want you to see.”
“I mean I don’t think they have the right to block all of the sites that they do,” says Quinn.
Despite the programs put in place, Quinn still uses her phone in class to access social media.
“In a way I think it’s good that they block social media sites during school hours because you’re almost forced to concentrate…But on the other hand, we should be able to use social media during recess and lunch.”
Quinn says that despite the restrictions, she continues to access social media in class, despite the restrictions.
“Yes, everyday! On my phone though…we should be able to use social media during recess and lunch.”
Dr Jo Robinson, Head of Suicide Prevention Research at Orygen, says that there is more than one way to protect students online, with each method producing different results.
“I think banning something generally makes it more attractive to young people.”
“Young people need to be supported properly to manage their situation in school settings,” says Robinson.
Robinson says that cyberbullying allows for ‘limited escape’ and anonymous perpetrators.
Despite this, she says that blaming social media and online platforms for bullying is ‘oversimplification’.
“I come back to the point that bullying is bullying, and I think you can’t ban a school playground, so why do you think that banning social media will solve the problem,” she says.
Students from various schools have become increasingly aware of methods to bypass firewalls and programs with one illegal method being the use of a ‘TAFE’ account.
“Using a TAFE account means that you’re allowed to access websites which usually you’re not allowed to with your own account…you can access Facebook or YouTube without getting caught,” says Matthew Lau, a Year 11 student from Fort Street High School.
Lau says that the main motive behind social media restriction is to help students concentrate.
“There are some incidents but…there just isn’t a lot of cyberbullying in our school”, says Lau.
However, Lau says his school is more lenient with social media use and monitoring than other schools.
“They are pretty relaxed about it but also mainly because I feel like they’ve come to accept that all the students use social media.”
Robinson says that there is more than one victim in bullying, and communities, including schools, should educate rather than oppress.
“I think the witch hunt that’s gone on over the last few months in the country around cyber bullying is very insensitive,” says Robinson.
“What its really doing is allowing the community to avoid dealing with bullying.”
Research carried out by Orygen and Robinson found that “most of the community, including young people, professionals, experts etc. all think that the benefits of social media outweigh the risk”.
“That facilitating help seeking, that non-stigmatized provision support, that sense of community, are all benefits,” says Robinson.
“Educating people about what feels good and what doesn’t feel good on social media is probably the way to go.”
(Below: A piece to camera on the topic)