Schools have to consult on use of mobiles

Schools must consult with staff, students, and parents about the use of smartphones and digital devices at school, Education Minister Richard Bruton has directed.

The move comes amid growing efforts to regulate children’s access and use of online technology, and recent debate about the digital age of consent for young people.

The Department of Education has written to all 4,000 primary and second-level schools to require them to introduce a policy covering the use of tablet devices and smartphones in the classroom and during the school day.

Where such policies already exist or are in place on related matters, they may need to be revised as soon as possible, based on consultations that staff are being told to undertake.

Parents, teachers, and students themselves must be consulted, and the department suggests this be done through surveys, focus groups, questionnaires or other existing local arrangements for engaging with the school community.

While schools are not being directed what their policies should require, they are being told they must consult on a number of key questions.

These include issues around the appropriate use, if any, of tablets and smartphones, taking photos and videos, or whether devices can be used during breaks or on school grounds outside of teaching hours.

Richard Bruton.

A “shared approach” to smartphone use at school and home may be promoted, although there is no question of schools directing what rules parents might have for their children around digital technologies outside school hours.

Mr Bruton wants the consultations to be undertaken as soon as possible, in advance of the enactment of law he hopes to have passed that would require parents’ views to be sought and considered on a range of other issues.

New technologies can open up a world of opportunity for our young people but we must harness their potential and ensure that parents, students and schools have a shared understanding of their use in our education system, he said.

The possibility of different rules for children of different ages or classes is also to be considered. The Government lost a vote last week, meaning the digital age of consent has been set at 16 and not at 13 as had been proposed.

Announcing the consultation requirements for schools, Mr Bruton said the Government is responding to the potential risks associated with the transformations associated with new technologies.

Schools are also being encouraged to avail of existing supports, such as the Webwise internet safety site funded by the department.

The circular letter issued at the minister’s request tells schools that the use of tablets and smartphones is an integral part of children’s and young people’s lives.

“While this is a positive development, concerns have been identified including some risks associated with the misuse, abuse and possible overuse of these devices and the various associated technologies,” it said.

Schools are told that young people need to be guided and supported to become good digital citizens.

“In a school setting, using digital technologies mediated by the teacher with the skills to exploit the potential of the technologies can be invaluable in equipping children with the skills to navigate the online world safely,” the department wrote.

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