No Wi-Fi? No prob­lem: Meet the school­child­ren liv­ing without smart­phones

Is lib­er­a­tion from smart­phones the key to restor­ing child­hood to our kids? A Kerry school, with par­ents’ sup­port, is find­ing re­sults be­yond all ex­pec­ta­tions, writes JOE O’SHEA

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - AGENDA -

Just 10 weeks af­ter the teach­ers and par­ents at a Co Kerry school came to­gether to take smart­phones out of the hands of sixth-class pupils, they re­alised the kids were act­ing strangely. For what seemed like the first time in months, they were mak­ing a bois­ter­ous, joy­ous racket.

In April, prin­ci­pal Terry O’Sul­li­van had asked par­ents to join him in bin­ning the phones and deny­ing kids any ac­cess to so­cial me­dia — at home and in school — amid se­ri­ous con­cerns about bul­ly­ing, ma­li­cious gos­sip, poor school per­for­mance and chil­dren ac­cess­ing un­safe ma­te­rial.

There had been some very wor­ry­ing in­stances of bul­ly­ing via so­cial me­dia groups. Teach­ers had seen pre­vi­ously happy kids be­come with­drawn and anx­ious. Par­ents had told O’Sul­li­van about kids be­ing awake at 4am, get­ting “pings”, Snapchat mes­sages of­ten tar­get­ing class­mates with se­ri­ous abuse.

“The kids were anx­ious and un­happy, they were strug­gling to fo­cus on what was go­ing on in class, and their teach­ers were get­ting in­creas­ingly wor­ried,” says the prin­ci­pal of St Bren­dan’s NS in Blen­nerville, Co Kerry.

Sixth-class teacher Rose O’Con­nor was struck by the shadow she said came over her class when she ar­rived into school ev­ery morn­ing.

“Es­pe­cially on Mon­day morn­ings, there would be an at­mos­phere from the mo­ment you ar­rived into class, you knew that some­thing had hap­pened on so­cial me­dia over the week­end,” she says.

“The chil­dren would be wary, eye­ing each other, they couldn’t fo­cus on what I was try­ing to teach. Chil­dren who had been open were with­drawn. Then at breaks you would see them hud­dling in the yard. We’d even­tu­ally find out some­thing had been said on Snapchat and spread around.”

O’Sul­li­van de­cided on ur­gent ac­tion. He called a manda­tory meet­ing of all sixth-class par­ents and asked them to join with the school in bin­ning their kids’ smart­phones.

Ten weeks later, the prin­ci­pal, some teach­ers and the sixth-class kids set off for a long coach ride to Dublin for a class trip. And it was then that one of the un­ex­pected ef­fects of the ban was re­vealed.

“It was a long jour­ney but we had a great trip. And at the end of it, the coach driver came up to me and told me that he couldn’t be­lieve how the kids had sang, chat­ted and laughed the whole way to Dublin and back. He told me that these days, he’d look in the mir­ror and all he’d see would be rows of kids star­ing down at their de­vices or lis­ten­ing to head­phones.”

O’Sul­li­van and his team are care­ful not to talk up the suc­cess of this pi­lot pro­gramme that has very quickly caught the at­ten­tion of other schools all over the coun­try.

But by get­ting the par­ents to join them in en­sur­ing the kids had no ac­cess to smart­phones in school or at home, it seems they had achieved some­thing more than just stop­ping hurt­ful gos­sip and so­cial me­dia bul­ly­ing. They had given the 11 and 12-year-olds of St Bren­dan’s back a lit­tle bit of their child­hood.

This play­ground of this bright, mod­ern school by the wa­ter just out­side Tralee buzzes with kids play­ing foot­ball, try­ing out the lat­est dance-craze (The Floss) or just gen­er­ally goof­ing around. Phones had al­ready been banned in the school, but get­ting the par­ents to agree to ban them once the kids were out­side the gates, at home or at play, has trans­formed the at­mos­phere.

OF­FEN­SIVE MES­SAGE

“We see it in class ev­ery day,” says O’Sul­li­van.

“The kids are more able to fo­cus and en­joy what they are do­ing. The teach­ers are cer­tainly hap­pier, there’s just a sense that a load has been lifted off ev­ery­body’s shoul­ders.

“Look, you can’t stop kids get­ting in­volved in gos­sip or bul­ly­ing. But with the phones and Snapchat, What­sApp and so on, it takes it to a new, very se­ri­ous level that a lot of par­ents and teach­ers would re­ally strug­gle to un­der­stand and deal with”.

To give an ex­am­ple, the prin­ci­pal reads out a shock­ing mes­sage that was in­ter­cepted by a par­ent, one of the ex­am­ples which spurred on the idea of the to­tal smart­phone ban (although Terry does not like to use that word). The bul­ly­ing and of­fen­sive mes­sage was sent to a group in­volv­ing most of one class and tar­get­ing an in­di­vid­ual child.

When the prin­ci­pal called the meet­ing of teach­ers, the school’s board of man­age­ment and par­ents (and made it manda­tory) there had to be some tough talk­ing. “I asked the par­ents when they wanted their kids to be able to ac­cess pornog­ra­phy, be­cause they should know it would be from the mo­ment they got a smart­phone into their hands.

“Porno­graphic ma­te­rial may be more of an is­sue for older kids in sec­ondary schools, but bul­ly­ing af­fects them all. We know how se­ri­ous this is, there have been young lives lost in this coun­try be­cause of cy­ber­bul­ly­ing, it’s not too much to say these phones and so­cial me­dia can be lethal weapons.”

From that first meet­ing to the end of the school year, the par­ents have backed the pol­icy on phones and while kids can al­ways find a way to get around rules, it ap­pears to have worked.

“This was such a se­ri­ous is­sue, we knew we could never tackle un­less ev­ery­body was work­ing on it to­gether. That is the key, ev­ery­body, teach­ers, man­age­ment, par­ents, they all have to be in­formed and on board,” says O’Sul­li­van.

Ev­ery school in the coun­try, pri­mary and sec­ondary, has been fac­ing sim­i­lar is­sues with so­cial me­dia and smart­phones. The pi­lot scheme in St Bren­dan’s has now at­tracted the at­ten­tion of other schools and re­searchers.

The school was last week vis­ited by an aca­demic from Univer­sity Col­lege Cork who is in­ter­ested in us­ing their ex­pe­ri­ence for an EU-funded study of cy­ber­bul­ly­ing in schools and how to com­bat it.

The school sec­re­tary has been tak­ing mes­sages for the prin­ci­pal from schools all over Ire­land who want advice and in­for­ma­tion on how to in­sti­gate sim­i­lar pro­grammes.

The 36-year-old prin­ci­pal, who will shortly leave the school to be­come the di­rec­tor of the re­gional Education Cen­tre in Tralee (where he hopes to de­velop this pro­gramme fur­ther) plans to put an in­for­ma­tion pack to­gether for other schools who want to tackle cy­ber­bul­ly­ing and the grow­ing prob­lems caused by smart­phones and so­cial me­dia for pre-teens.

O’Sul­li­van ac­knowl­edges that par­ents have as much, if not more, of a re­spon­si­bil­ity than teach­ers to be aware of the dan­gers and to take ac­tion to pro­tect their chil­dren. But he is not in­ter­ested in the blame game, just in prac­ti­cal so­lu­tions that in­volve ev­ery­body com­ing to­gether.

“Ev­ery­body is talk­ing about this prob­lem, we are all wor­ried. We just wanted to give the

The kids are more able to fo­cus and en­joy what they are do­ing. The teach­ers are cer­tainly hap­pier — there’s just a sense that a load has been lifted off ev­ery­body’s shoul­ders

par­ents a prac­ti­cal way of tack­ling it where we are all work­ing to­gether.

“I’m not say­ing that we have come up with the ideal so­lu­tion. And peo­ple might say that we are try­ing to put the ge­nie back in the bot­tle. But it’s a pretty sim­ple idea, that it’s not enough to say the pupils leave their phones at the school gates. By get­ting the par­ents on board, we can en­sure that they don’t have ac­cess to smart­phones and so­cial me­dia when they go home, when they are out play­ing or in their bed­rooms at night.

“If par­ents want their kids to have phones, so they can stay in con­tact with them or what­ever, they can give them a ba­sic Nokia. But in pri­mary school, they are just not ma­ture enough to be able to deal with what so­cial me­dia can do.”

Lo­cal café owner Emer Tobin has no­ticed a change in her son Odhran and his class­mates in gen­eral since they stopped hav­ing ac­cess to so­cial me­dia and smart­phones.

“We are see­ing more of him now, we’ve more fam­ily time and where we go is not dic­tated by whether they have Wi-Fi or not,” says Emer.

“It had been get­ting frus­trat­ing, we were wor­ried. I would re­mem­ber two or three years ago and the sound of the ball be­ing kicked around the gar­den, how that went when the smart­phone ar­rived.

“We did have rules, no phones at the din­ner ta­ble, no phones af­ter a cer­tain hour, but then it was a case of him just dash­ing through din­ner so he could get back to the phone. That’s changed now and I think we are all a lit­tle bit more re­laxed, there’s more play and more qual­ity time to­gether.”

SCHOOL PLEDGE

Emer says that they had never planned to give their son a phone when he was in fifth class.

“We have two older kids and they have phones, and when his dad got an up­grade, he just ended up get­ting the old one.”

She ad­mits it’s been a bit of a strug­gle and it’s hard to take a “toy” away from a child once they have be­come used to it, es­pe­cially when it is as fas­ci­nat­ing and — some stud­ies sug­gest — as ad­dic­tive as a smart­phone.

But the pi­lot scheme at St Bren­dan’s has had very pos­i­tive re­sults for her boy and all the cur­rent sixth class. And O’Sul­li­van be­lieves it may be eas­ier to run in the fu­ture.

“Tak­ing phones away from kids is dif­fi­cult when they have had them for a year,” he says.

“But from now on, when chil­dren start at the school, we are go­ing to ask their par­ents to make a pledge that they will not get a smart­phone while they are with us, a part of our en­rol­ment pol­icy.

“I think that’s the way we can break the culture, so chil­dren will know from high in­fants up, that they, and all of their class­mates, will not be get­ting one,” he says.

O’Sul­li­van and his team at St Bren­dan’s NS do not claim to have come up with the magic bul­let for the scourge of cy­ber­bul­ly­ing and over­ex­po­sure to so­cial me­dia in pre-teens.

But to spend just a morn­ing with the teach­ers, par­ents and pupils in Blen­nerville is to see how a sim­ple idea — backed by all — can make a real dif­fer­ence in an in­creas­ingly com­pli­cated world for chil­dren.

PHOTOS: CLARE KEOGH

Mak­ing a dif­fer­ence: Pupils at St Bren­dan’s NS in Blen­nerville, and prin­ci­pal Terry O’Sul­li­van (be­low left)

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