Subscriber OnlyYour Family

How are schools coping with the minefield of smartphones?

There’s plenty of scope for conflict between students, parents and teachers over how to deal with the issue of smartphones. How can everybody involved reach common ground on this vexed subject?

As the schools prepare to return, so do the worries for many parents around phones – the fear, the policing, the battles to separate them temporarily from their owners, and the peer pressure dread as children look to own a phone from a younger age.

The impacts of child and teen phone use are felt all too readily across schools.

So how are individual schools coping with the minefield of smartphones?

To ban or not to ban, that is the question.


Rachel Harper, principal of St Patrick’s National School in Greystones, is keen to make the distinction between what primary schools in the area are doing and a phone ban. Parents’ associations across all eight primary schools in Greystones have agreed not to give children a smartphone before they’re in secondary school. It “is a voluntary code”, she says. “And I’m not saying no to phones and we’re not against technology. We’re simply asking parents to wait until secondary school to purchase their child a smartphone.”

“It is voluntary,” Harper emphasises, explaining that she can’t “tell parents not to purchase phones”, but adds “there’s a lot of goodwill. We’re preparing for the future. We could see them creeping in at nine. If we didn’t do something, roll it on another five years, would they be getting them at six?

“We’re not enforcing, and I need to be really clear on that. The moment I say ‘no phones allowed’ is when you’re going to get resistance.”

Parents were saying “how it was taboo that some in the class were getting phones, and then they didn’t want to speak out for fear of being the overprotective parent, or judging other parents. And it just gets out of hand and then before you know it only three in the class don’t have phones and then they [parents] end up giving in because they don’t want them to miss out and you don’t want them to be the odd one out. This way you can blame the school!”

Harper says there has also been interest within children’s sports clubs in the same community, who have inquired as to how it was rolled out within schools in the area. The initiative has also acquired a lot of national and international attention.

The approach is always positive, Harper says, in explaining to parents why schools are seeking to implement the voluntary code.

Karl Hegarty, a career guidance counsellor at St Kevin’s, Dunlavin, is also a co-founder of Phone Away Box, a clear plastic box that attaches to students’ lockers in schools.

“What we’re trying to do with the Phone Away Box is to try and help students to manage their time on their phones. We fear the idea of banning phones is a bit draconian, and I suppose in secondary school a lot of parents like the idea of being able to contact their students. And that could be for a number of things – maybe they’ve found out the train is called off this evening or they need to make a different arrangement to collect, and things like that.”

The idea with the clear box is that school staff can clearly see whether phones are in place or missing, which they may be for good reason, Hegarty explains, if technology is needed in class on a particular day. “On the policy, you can get them [students] to sign off what make of phone they’re bringing in to school.

“What you’re trying to do is in the best interests of the students. You’re not trying to punish them, you’re trying to enable them. That’s the thinking behind it. I know myself that concentration is massive [in importance], and you don’t want them to lose out, and this helps with concentration.”

Hegarty says “responsible usage”, is the goal, as opposed to a blanket ban. “The Phone Away Box is acting as a tool in order just to separate, to concentrate. It’s even yielding positive effects in the home too,” he explains, “where students become used to putting their phones away for a period of time, while they work or eat.”

Robbie O’Connell is a primary school principal in Blennerville, Co Kerry. After a situation escalated some years ago following an issue around social media and smartphones, parents came together and decided to take the phones away from the children, he says. “It’s accepted now on the back of that,” he continues. “We don’t have any official policies in place. Obviously, we say phones are not permitted in schools. All primary schools have that anyway. And what we do then is we engage with Zeeko education, who are internet safety specialists. They come down to us termly, for the parents and the students.

“It’s not a general generic talk. It’s what the parents want to hear,” he clarifies. “We send a survey to the parents termly and it’s dictated by what they want to be educated on. There’s new apps coming up morning, noon and night. Omegle is an app that girls, in particular, were engaging with. It’s basically an adult chat room, a video chat room. We got Zeeko to come down and engage with them” about it.

O’Connell is not in favour of a smartphone ban, and believes schools who might try to implement one are overstepping the mark. “What we’re doing is advising. It’s very dangerous territory to put in a ban... they’re not in primary schools. It’s not an issue in primary schools because they’re not permitted to have them in school. All you can do outside of school is advise.”

He doesn’t believe it’s appropriate to take it beyond that. “You’ll get resistance – ‘My child, I can do what I want. My child, my choice. I want them to have a phone outside of school, I think it’s beneficial.’ Our advice is that it’s not beneficial, it’s not advisable.”

He find the talks very helpful for the children. “It’s laying it out, and in brass tacks, saying, ‘Listen, if you say something nasty online, potentially you’ll have the guards knocking at your door’. It’s hard-hitting, and it needs to be hard-hitting. The parents tell us what they want the student to hear.”

O’Connell also finds the talks very helpful for parents who often “don’t know the basics around security settings”.

They’ll often ask questions about the age for access to social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram. “It’s a working partnership with parents. You could say, ‘It’s nothing got to do with schools’. Of course it does. Of course, it affects school eventually. Some parents come to us, ‘What do you think? I’m under fierce pressure’. And we say, ‘Listen if you could hold off until secondary school, that would be great’. And if you are going to go down the route, this is what we can do to help you. I don’t think you can dictate. You’re always going to get resistance. I think it’s a safer bet to constantly reinforce the same message.”

Dr Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychotherapist, says, “Ideally no child under the age of 13 should have a smartphone. If there were a uniform agreement amongst all parents and schools, if that was the case that nobody would give them before that, I think that would suit most people. I think most parents who give [one to] their child aged under 11 or 10, do so against their better judgment, and perhaps do so with trepidation and regret.”

When it comes to schools wading into this area, Dr Noctor says he feels it could be interpreted by some as overstepping the mark, but says he believes parents often give phones to their children for “no other reason” than to give in to pressure the child is putting them under, “or wanting their child to like them, or be a popular parent”.

Safety concerns are often given as reasons for parents wanting their younger children to have a smartphone. Dr Noctor says, “Yes, [child safety is] a source of anxiety, but the issue around having mobile phone contact, or text communication contact, is your child can say, ‘Yes I’m fine. I’m only around the corner’, when in actual fact they could be in the centre of the city.

“There may be circumstances where having a phone may be useful, but there’s no need for them to have a smart device in order to do that. There’s no need for them to have internet access, apps etc. The dumbphone option is as viable, in terms of trying to contact them in an emergency, as the smartphone is, but we don’t buy our children dumbphones, we buy them smartphones.

“And that comes down to the pressure that children put on parents for the latest smartphone and not the dumbphone – which suggests they use it for a lot more than just accessing their parents in an emergency.”

Read more from our screentime series here.