21.01.2020 “Bans reduce willingness to engage in dialogue and block discussion”

Barbara Bonetti has observed that there is less bullying in schools that permit and have rules for smartphone use than in schools that ban phones completely. In this interview, the Research Assistant at the Centro di risorse didattiche e digitali (Cerdd) discusses the value of educational debate and how digital media can be usefully employed in a teaching environment.

Barbara Bonetti

Pictures “Bans reduce willingness to engage in dialogue and block discussion”


Barbara Bonetti

Barbara Bonetti studied educational theory, special education and social work at the University of Fribourg. After graduating she worked as a support teacher in secondary schools. Following the birth of her first son, she worked on health promotion in schools and coordinated various working groups on the subject of sex education. Since 2015 she has been Research Assistant at the cantonal centre for educational and digital resources
(Centro di risorse didattiche e digitali or Cerdd), where she heads up the “Schools and digital issues” section.

We often hear that children spend their break times sitting still and staring at their mobile phones, rather than running the playground, like they used to.

That’s just a preconception. If you look more closely, you’ll see that very few primary-age children take their mobile to school with them. All schools ban the use of smartphones during the school day – including break times. While mobile phones certainly aren't an issue at primary level, the situation becomes more complex when we turn to secondary schools. Speaking for myself, I firmly believe that exercise and fresh air are good for children and should be encouraged. However, I also think that young people should have opportunities for free development. They are often not allowed to go into the field next to their school building or to play ball games because they might damage something. They should have incentives as well as restrictions.

In Canton Ticino, we have decided to let students use mobile phones provided they observe certain rules that we have established. Consequently, they are allowed to take their mobiles to school, but must mute them and keep them out of sight in class. Each school incorporates the cantonal regulations into its rules and decides for itself whether to let students use their phones during breaks. As a result, the approach varies from school to school. But whatever the approach, I think it makes good sense to discuss the rules with students and develop them together.

Mobile phones also involve certain risks to mental health. How dangerous are issues such as Internet or gaming addiction?

There’s an ongoing debate about what constitutes addictive behaviour. Video gaming addiction – though not Internet addiction – was added to DSM-5, the current US reference work for mental disorders, a few years ago as a condition for further study. Fortunately, serious cases of gaming addiction are relatively uncommon. It’s important for the people affected that their health insurers recognise the condition and pay for treatment. From a health promotion and prevention perspective, however, I don't see either unjustified panic or bans as a useful way to avoid gaming addiction. Banning phones makes the issue difficult to talk about. Yet the literature shows that dialogue between young people and adults is the one thing that’s most needed when it comes to digital technologies. If you maintain dialogue with students, negotiate mobile-phone rules and discuss the outcomes with the young people, you have an opportunity to fulfil an education role.

The aim must be to seek discussion with students, especially if they are obviously withdrawing from social interaction with their peers so they can sit in a corner and play on their phone. It is often a good idea to involve parents and the school psychologist or other professionals. 

Another risk to mental health that we hear a lot about is cyberbullying.

Not every disagreement that starts in the playground then spills over into online chat, for example, counts as cyberbullying. Bullying is when a group deliberately picks on and even threatens a victim over a long period. It is important in every case that the young people affected have someone to discuss the problem with. Our approach to prevention draws on teaching staff’s educational resources and skills. From our perspective, it’s not so much about experts telling young people where they need to watch out and what they should be paying attention to. It’s much more crucial for teachers to be open, accompany students through their relationships (which are constantly changing at this age) and promoting a good classroom and school climate.

We offer training courses for teaching staff to enable them to respond correctly to bullying. Since victims and perpetrators are both minors, they both need to be protected, even though our spontaneous reaction might tempt us to only protect the victim and punish the perpetrator. That’s why we prepare teaching staff for such situations in our courses. We want them to be able to help the perpetrators as well as the victims. This doesn’t rule out sanctions, but dealing with and rectifying the error is often much more important and beneficial than sanctions.

How does banning mobile phones from schools affect cases of bullying?

When we were drawing up the rules for mobile phone use, we were struck by the fact that there is more bullying in schools that ban phones than in schools that permit and have rules for phones. We think this is again linked to the fact that bans reduce the willingness to engage in dialogue and block discussion. But if teachers are part of a dialogue, they can often intervene in conflicts before they spread and escalate.

Are there fundamental differences between physical conflict in the playground and conflict in the digital world?

Because information can travel faster, conflicts on social media generally proliferate more quickly. On top of that, misunderstandings are more common in written communications between groups than in face-to-face conversations, where people can read the non-verbal signals and ask straight away whether they have understood something correctly.

But we adults tend to panic when conflicts occur in the digital world. For example, a video game recently caused a conflict situation in a small school. Instead of there being a calm analysis of the situation, the discussion was allowed to escalate, and a self-appointed task force demonised the game – as if the game were the only thing responsible.

Very often, the problem is that children and young people are left to their own devices in the digital world. No one would leave 20 children in a gym for hours on end without supervision, but when it comes to video games on phones and computers, the adults are nowhere to be seen. We have to ask questions so we can be a bit more involved and start a dialogue. 

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