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
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 Teachers had seen previously happy kids become withdrawn and anxious.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 Children who had been open were withdrawn.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.
“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.”
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.
Making a difference: Pupils at St Brendan’s NS in Blennerville, and principal Terry O’Sullivan (below left)