Calls for cellphone usage policies in schools

Sifelani Tsiko Innovations Editor

Zimbabwe’s schools should develop policies to regulate the usage of smartphones in schools, researchers have said.

Experts say this will tackle classroom disruption, improve learning and help protect children from cyberbullying and access to illicit online content.

This came out at the launch of findings from a Child Online Safety Survey carried out by the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) in collaboration with the Research Council of Zimbabwe (RCZ) and the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education.

The latest survey shows that a good number of children aged between 8 and 18 years are watching adult content online, including pornography.

About 44 percent of the children interviewed admitted that they have seen sexual content online at least once. The messages came in the form of messages, images, or videos.

Exposure to content instigating hate and violence against certain people or groups (e.g. tribes, races, religion), was also prevalent. Children are also accessing fake news.

Some also revealed that they have been encouraged to consume drugs and other illicit substances through online platforms; while others have access information about committing suicide.

Furthermore, a considerable 13% of children reported that they had experienced cyberbullying at least once, the researchers found.

This has sparked concerns over the safety of children online.

In a presentation made on behalf of Professor Maxwell Sandada, the chief investigator, Ms Rumbidzai Panavanhu, a Potraz official, said cellphone usage policies and guidelines in schools will promote the safety of children online.

“Parental support and mediation are just as important to children’s use of digital technology and the internet as they are to any other aspect of a child’s development.

“Parents and guardians should use widely accessible tools to filter and block children from accessing inappropriate content,” said Ms Panavanhu.

Researchers also recommended that digital literacy should be integrated into the curricula.

“Schools can also play a crucial role in ensuring that online safety is adequately integrated into the broader school violence prevention or safety policies and programs, including its integration in complaints reporting systems,” reads part of the recommendations by the researchers.

Experts said adults also need to have a level of digital literacy to effectively monitor their children’s activities on the internet.

They also said there is need for the implementation of child targeted education and awareness programmes focusing on online safety and promoting digital citizenship.

While some Zimbabwean schools already have rules regulating student phone usage, most are still grappling with the enforcement of the guidelines.

Primary and high school teachers often complain that students watch Netflix on their phones during class and use gambling apps to place bets. Other students have been accused of routinely sending Snapchat and TikTok messages during class and listening to music.

Experts point out that excessive mobile phone usage is linked to reduced educational performance, adding that high levels of screen time has a negative effect on children’s emotional stability.

Some are even advocating for a ban of the gadgets from classrooms to improve learning.

However, others still believe that if usage is regulated well, smartphones can still be useful in classrooms.

“The digital revolution holds immeasurable potential but it must be regulated in schools to enhance teaching and learning by our students.

“We need to ensure that our schools have clear usage policies and guidelines to ensure digital technology in education is beneficial and avoids harm to the users,” said one researcher.

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