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Screen Time and Student Mental Health

Deputy Principal - Student & Staff Wellbeing, Mr Patrick Brennan

Mr Patrick Brennan, Deputy Principal - Student & Staff Wellbeing

From Deputy Principal – Student & Staff Wellbeing, Mr Patrick Brennan

Teachers have long recognised the educational and developmental benefits of digital technologies in the classroom. Like a number of other schools, the extent to which Waverley College integrates computer technology into blended learning programs has been adjusted over the years to suit the needs of our students. We believe in a balanced approach and acknowledge that, while computers are an important and valuable resource in the classroom, they should be one of many tools used by the teacher in the delivery of the curriculum.

The amount of time that students are spending in front of screens has undoubtedly increased over the past decade. Long gone are the days where students would write essays by hand or gather research materials from hardcover books. While personal computers, mobile phones and tablets all have tremendous benefits for students’ learning and social development, they have also presented new challenges. Waverley College values the research, which clearly indicates that boys retain more information by writing over typing. Importantly, most students will also sit a three-hour HSC Exam for each subject that involves writing – not typing – a response. Handwriting is a crucial tool that needs to be developed, practised and improved like any other fine motor skill. Having marked the HSC for many years, it’s important to note that you can’t award marks if you’re unable to understand what’s been written.

At a seminar that I attended last year, it was suggested that there was a significant spike in mental health issues among school-aged kids at the point where over 50% of adolescents owned a mobile phone. Our students can receive a skewed view of reality from the social media posts they’re exposed to – digitally enhanced photos where friends are only having ‘the time of their lives’, not to mention the eternal drive to achieve as many ‘likes’ as possible. Increased interconnectedness in the online world has also meant that schoolyard comments and bullying behaviours no longer stop when the 3:15pm bell rings. Bullying now takes place online, after hours. According to Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, one in five children have experienced some form of cyberbullying (Karp, 2018). Thankfully, our own 2020 student Wellbeing Survey suggests a lower number within our College community.

Cyberbullying, unlike traditional bullying, is said to be far more invasive and complex. It can range from abusive text messages to humiliation, exclusion, imitation and nasty gossip. There’s no doubt that bullying of this nature has an impact on the mental health of young people. Governments have recognised these risks, with some announcing that students will be banned from using their mobile phones during school hours. Waverley College’s phone policy acknowledges that most students act responsibly in this space, so we allow phones to be kept in lockers and accessed only at recess and at lunch in House locker areas. What the Government forgets is that most laptops and iPads can perform the same functions as mobile phones, yet these are permitted into most classrooms.

Waverley College continues to have zero tolerance in the cyberbullying space. Students who engage in this behaviour will receive a lengthy suspension or permanent exclusion. It’s important to remind students who are exposed to trolls of the four simple rules:

  • Take a screenshot of the post
  • Delete the offensive post
  • Do not engage with the troll
  • Report the incident to a Head of House

As bullying is increasingly occurring outside of school hours, the burden to police screen time often falls to parents. However, the College is here to help by implementing automatic curfews for school-issued laptops and tracking internet use on these devices. Any concerning searches are reported to our Heads of House. As educators, we’re in a position to teach our students how to use digital technologies responsibly to support their mental health and wellbeing. We do this at assemblies, in PDHPE, during wellbeing time and at House meetings. Ultimately, technology is an inevitable part of our modern lives. We can’t protect our young people from the pitfalls of technology 24/7, but we can work to improve their mental health inside and outside of the classroom.