The start of Term Four this morning looked a little different for NSW students as a statewide blanket ban on mobile phones began in all public high schools.

Phones will be banned during classrooms and break times throughout the entire school day, with students still able to use their mobiles before and after school hours.

In a response to Central News, the NSW Department of Education outlined the five ways schools can choose to implement the ban, including having phones simply turned off and put away, kept in lockers, sealed in lockable pouches, or collected at the front office or in the classroom.

Premier Chris Minns announced the policy in early April, giving schools six months to prepare.

A commitment to education and improving students’ learning was a key election promise in Labor’s campaign. The policy is already in effect in NSW primary schools and in secondary schools across Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, with Queensland set to introduce their own ban at the start of school next year.

“I know many parents who are anxious about the pervasiveness of phones and technology in our children’s learning environments. It’s time to clear our classrooms of unnecessary distractions and create better environments for learning,” Minns said.

In designing the policy, the government consulted with parents like Dany Elachi, a dad of five children, who has concerns about the distracting nature of phones.

There’s no place for mobile phones in schools and there’s no need for them.

“[Minns] is our local member. Even before the election we had been speaking to him about this policy” said Elachi.

He and his wife Cynthia co-founded the Heads Up Alliance, a movement of Sydney families that wish to delay their children’s social media and phone use until at least the end of year eight. They strongly support the banning of phones in learning environments.

“If children aren’t being distracted by their phones, they’re able to concentrate on what they’re being taught… they’re going to be more inclined to play a game of basketball, more inclined to just talk to the person sitting next to them,” Elachi said, although he acknowledged the policy may pose problems for students who use phones to monitor health conditions and for classroom activities that require a phone.

“We would expect that the policy does make exceptions in those two areas,” he said.

These types of exemptions feature in bans across NSW high schools, including those that introduced their own bans before it became government mandated.

Killara High School on Sydney’s North Shore began its own phone policy in Term 1, with students placing their phone into a lockable Yondr pouch at the start of the school day and unlocking the pouch when the school day ended.

Principal Robin Chand said the system is currently working well and continues to receive support from the school community, including the P&C Association who funded the initial implementation of the policy.

“There’s no place for mobile phones in schools and there’s no need for them,” said Chand.

“By bringing in this policy we’re giving our students an educational advantage and a wellbeing advantage.”

Killara High School Principal Robin Chand checks whether students have locked their phones before school. Photo: Jessica O’Bryan.

After some minor adjustments, like bringing cash to the canteen and using timetables on laptops instead of phones, Chand said the policy is now a part of the school’s culture and is prompting positive changes in and out of the classroom.

“The level of engagement has increased, allowing teachers to get into the rhythm of learning quicker,” he said.

“It’s absolutely liberated students in the playground … our library always exhausts their supply of chess boards, board games [and] card games that kids are borrowing from there.”

Central News spoke to four students in year 10 at Killara about the policy, and found feedback was largely positive.

“Our group’s more talkative now. We’re playing card games which we never thought we’d be doing,” said Jesse Geale.

James Smit, however, said he would prefer the option to use his phone at break times.

“In the mornings, if you’re there alone there’s not really much you can do… I think rather than having it locked the whole day, maybe just for classes might be better,” he added.

The students said after three terms of the policy students know how to get around the system, like using their laptops as an alternative distraction in the classroom.

However, the biggest challenge which students Sherin Oberai and Keeva O’Kelly found is a difficulty to concentrate in class since the policy began.

Rather than having it locked the whole day, maybe just for classes might be better.

“My learning gets affected by people who don’t want to learn because they don’t have a phone to keep them distracted … I think some of my teachers don’t know what to do with such a disruptive class,” said O’Kelly.

The students thought the policy was more relevant and effective for students in junior high.

Kapil Gangwani, a year seven parent at Killara, was supportive of the policy. He noticed his son was listening more and understanding instructions better since it began.

“I’ve seen a lot of change in him,” said Gangwani.

“I’m very glad that Killara High School has banned phones … these are very formative years for children to grow and to learn so it will be better to channel their energy in the right way.”

Conversations around the use of mobile phones in high schools began after the 2018 NSW Department of Education review into mobile phones in schools.

The review, led by Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, found phones increase the risk of bullying and decrease face to face interactions, which ultimately led to the ban in NSW primary schools.

Moves to ban phones in schools also became more urgent after the COVID-19 pandemic, where young people used mobile phones at unprecedented levels.

In the first lockdown in 2020, young people spent an extra 27 hours on their screens each week.

Research from earlier this year by Dr Eric Lim, from the UNSW Business School, found a direct link between high phone usage patterns and negative health impacts like sleep deprivation and nomophobia.

Dr Eric Lim from the UNSW Business School. Photo: Jessica O’Bryan.

“Nomophobia is short for no mobile phone phobia … as the term suggests this is basically a sense of anxiety that an individual experiences when they are without their mobile phone,” explained Dr Lim.

Given that mobile phone usage can severely alter how young people’s brains develop, Dr Lim welcomes phone bans in schools. He notes the difficulty for students to learn and study when each notification from their phone generates a hit of dopamine.

“The stimulation that you get from your phone is specifically designed to hold your attention… for young people, they may be over stimulated,” he said.

Main image by Jessica O’Bryan.