A wake-up call to us all


Trapped in Ikea re­cently, on my an­nual cru­sade for tea light can­dles, el­der­flower cor­dial and the will to live, one thing was clear: we are a na­tion of “nomo­phobes”. Look­ing around the food hall, at al­most ev­ery ta­ble were peo­ple glued to their mo­bile phones as they hunched over meat­balls and lin­gonberry jam.

There was an al­most eerie si­lence as ev­ery­one ig­nored each other and scrolled (not the cin­na­mon ver­sion).

The war is over, peo­ple. We’re ly­ing to our­selves if we think we can wean our­selves off screens.

So the gov­ern­ment’s at­tempts to ban “screenager­s” from their phones at school seems fu­tile — and hyp­o­crit­i­cal.

How can we tell stu­dents to lock away their phones for the day, while we adults waste hours sucked into In­sta­gram story vac­u­ums, Face­book creep­ing and Twit­ter spats?

A typ­i­cal fam­ily scene now fea­tures parents un­able to ig­nore the ting of a mes­sage and con­stantly check­ing emails. Our chil­dren, by pure pri­mal na­ture, follow suit.

If you’ve seen a two-year-old open and close iPad apps with fin­ger-flick­ing dex­ter­ity, you know the feel­ing — a mix of as­ton­ish­ment, pride and guilt.

Surely this mis­use and overuse of tech­nol­ogy at home has a far greater detri­ment than whether phones are al­lowed at school.

Who are we kid­ding? When have teenagers ever re­spected pa­tro­n­is­ing blan­ket bans? When we tell them drink­ing is bad as we reach for an­other stub­bie?

When I was in Year 11 on ex­change to a school in France, the lo­cal 16- and 17-year-olds would sip a small beer at the pub at lunch as they pe­rused exam notes.

What did a group of Aussie teens do when pre­sented with this sce­nario? Tequila, bien sur.

Our hys­ter­i­cal em­brace of sud­den French free­doms got to the point that our su­per­vis­ing teacher would lap the cen­tre of town, hang­ing out the car win­dow scream­ing “de­fense de fumer” if he spot­ted us smok­ing.

When we hosted our French sib­lings, we ex­posed them to the lo­cal tra­di­tion of a high school party. To us, it was the usual af­fair — a cou­ple of hun­dred teens in­vad­ing a sub­ur­ban gar­den clutch­ing soft drink bot­tles filled with Bundy Rum, bod­ies in bushes, pro­jec­tile vom­it­ing, an in­evitable fist fight and the po­lice called. To the Frenchies, it was dis­grace­ful.

They had been raised from a young age to re­spect­fully en­joy al­co­hol as a nor­mal com­ple­ment to a meal. To them, binge drink­ing was ap­palling.

Per­haps it’s time we adopted a more French at­ti­tude. With nine out of 10 Aussie teens now own­ing a mo­bile, surely a crit­i­cal yet pos­i­tive ap­proach to smart­phones might prove more valu­able than lock­ing away phone­less stu­dents in tow­ers.

The new Aus­tralian Re­search Coun­cil Cen­tre of Ex­cel­lence for the Digital Child will be led by QUT ed­u­ca­tion Pro­fes­sor Su­san Danby, who says that while she un­der­stands the con­cerns, she has seen mo­biles used cre­atively in schools by stu­dents pho­tograph­ing al­go­rithms or to Facetime other stu­dents about projects.

Maybe this is the so­lu­tion — treat­ing mo­biles as nec­es­sary and pow­er­ful tools of learn­ing.

Rather than cas­trophise our re­liance on phones, we should be hope­ful, even ex­cited, about the ways they can help ad­vance ed­u­ca­tion. Be­cause a quick scan of so­ci­ety shows none of us will be giv­ing up mo­biles any time soon.

It’s time to ac­cept we’ve lost the fight to limit our kids’ screen­time and em­brace digital pos­i­tives.

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