Home 9 Digital Nutrition 9 Phone bans and pool fences – an analogy

Phone bans and pool fences – an analogy

Apr 16, 2023

Image of luxury glass pool fence

Exploring the complexities of smartphone bans in schools through the lens of the pool fence analogy

Smartphones in schools is a topic I’ve been curious about for several years, alongside my general fascination with all things cyberpsychology and digital wellbeing.

While the idea of ‘banning’ phones in classrooms and on playgrounds appears to like a ‘no brainer’ (despite being light on evidence) there’s a range of complexities that need consideration and planning to create a meaningful, long-term solution to the ways that both schools and parents manage technology across all devices and contexts.

The analogy I often use (because it does a pretty good job of highlighting some of the key issues) is around pool fences and swimming lessons.

Pool fences are an important safety feature that help prevent accidental drownings. We know that pool fences save lives, we accept that they are part of the backyard landscape. The standards around them are clear and legislated.

We also take seriously and value the skill of swimming and teaching water safety.  Little ones learn to swim alongside care givers often from before they can walk. Schools often take whole weeks out of their normal programming to offer a week-long swim intensive to ensure all children have basic water survival skills.

We know that swimming laps of your local pool is different to body surfing in the ocean. Or being stuck in a rip at the beach. Or taking photos by an infinity pool in Bali (where there’s little pool safety at all).

Many of us growing up in Australia in the 90’s had to swim laps of the pool fully clothed to complete the Bronze Medallion and learn skills to get out of tricky situations in hypothetical rivers and dams.  We learned not only survival swimming skills but also to conduct safe rescues of others.

We learn to read ocean conditions, swim between the red and yellow flags and signal for help.  We don’t attempt to fence the ocean – except perhaps in small areas that we know might attract sharks or have other clear dangers.

Lifesavers and pool guards are highly skilled and trained to deal with a range of rescue conditions and respond to medical emergencies.  There is clear signage which helps everyone understand expectations (no diving in the shallow end), recognise surf conditions and swim at your own risk.

Our use of technology can be aligned to our approach to swimming and water safety.

Some restrictions and guidelines on phone-use during the school day, are like pool fences – required, sensible and mostly already in place in some format.

How exactly schools go about creating these (digital) pool fences and safety systems is another post entirely, but can vary widely from relatively basic ways (like with these shoe racks as a phone drop or alphabetised buckets) to others that are more fancy and expensive (like locker systems or electromagnetic pouches – you keep the phone on you locked in a little blankie, fewer issues with lost/stolen phones).

Electromagnetic pouches (which apparently are used in around 160 schools across NSW) are perhaps just like those blow-up arm floaties that you see toddlers waddling around with.  While they’re supposed to help keep a small human safe, in practice they can do the opposite. Floaties immobilise a child’s arms so they can’t actually use them to build swimming skills, they can create a false sense of security and an over-reliance on them. Take them away and  the child’s ability to manage in the water is limited.

None of my colleagues who are (mis)labelled as ‘anti phone ban’ are suggesting not having any digital pool fencing or safety measures is a good idea.  We’re more about the digital divide when it comes to how high you build the pool fence (and with what resourcing and standards) and most importantly, what equivalent efforts and attention is going into teaching (digital) swimming lessons (where there is measurable impact being tracked, not boxes being ticked).

The digital swimming lessons can start as soon as an infant can reach out for your phone on a video chat with their grandparents and don’t end when they turn 18. The lessons span social-emotional (self-control, emotion-regulation, attention management) and interpersonal skills, media literacy (understanding and appraising online information) and digital wellbeing (impacts of tech and digital media on health).

These skills cannot effectively be taught, in my experience, by a one-off guest speaker given one 45-minute period to communicate the complexity of the digital dangers and how to swim in them.  They need regular lessons, where students can practice their skills, in the digital waters!

We do not learn butterfly by simply watching video of Michael Phelps technique, likewise young people need to repeat and rehearse these skills in a supported situation (or even simulation) to practically get good at them and then apply them IRL as the need arises.

These lessons are best taught by those who understand the waters.  Often parents and caregivers are not only weak-swimmers, but they are scared of the water!  Some actively claim they ‘don’t get’ and don’t like young people’s online playgrounds, so asking them to be lifeguards can be problematic.  Often these lessons are reactionary and exclusionary rather than building autonomy and problem solving.

Parents could perhaps ask their child’s school how they can support the implementation of digital swimming programs, before celebrating the pool fence being raised further.

Teaching these skills is an investment of time and resources – two things in short supply in most schools across Australia and especially in the NSW public system (after years of neglect from the recently ousted LNP government).

We cannot fence the digital ocean.

While some parents might deploy monitoring software to limit and restrict online content to varying levels of success, young people often find ways to scale the perimeters and find  vulnerabilities in the boundary.

They will occasionally access ‘inappropriate’ material that could be upsetting and traumatising. They might get catfished or bullied in what should be the safety of their own rooms. They possibly will say ignorant, dumb shit in group chats that gets them expelled from private schools. We cannot completely and permanently protect young people from these things, but can upskill ourselves and children with skills and expectations of what is acceptable and how to manage situations when things go awry online.

So, of course, smartphone bans are a cost-effective way of shifting responsibility for digital wellbeing and safety onto school leaders, whereby pool fencing standards are legislated.

While this might level a playing field for expectations around phones use in schools around the state, without also committing to the lessons required to teach digital swimming skills, our kids will struggle to stay afloat in the open waters of the present and  future internet that is fast becoming even rougher,  more pervasive and immersive seas than we’re currently  swimming against.

TL:DR (aka the short of it):

We need (digital) pool fences (aka: equitably designed ‘responsible tech-use’ guidelines) to work alongside meaningful (digital) swimming lessons that teach people (of all ages) to manage and respond to various conditions across all digital platforms and spaces.

We cannot effectively or efficiently fence the digital ocean (aka: the whole internet), although some  software might try, or patrol it with people who haven’t learnt the relevant digital swimming lessons (or who are afraid of the water).

A focus on ‘banning’ smartphones in schools can be considered akin to building higher pool fences, leaving young people exposed to digital risks without the lifelong skills required to navigate a variety of digital conditions themselves or as skilled helpers to their friends.

Creating a digital water safety program that accurately reflects the skills that young Australians need to be upstanding and outstanding users of a range of devices, platforms and games, is the real challenge which requires political leadership.

Also, get those ridiculous floaties off your child’s arms! 😉

Post script: I first remember hearing about this analogy on Twitter several years ago, when I think Alice Leung talked about it. Dr Justin Coulson can be credited with the ‘cant fence the ocean/whole internet’ aspect of the analogy.


Final thought: Rather than reactionary bans, perhaps we can prioritise comprehensive digital education and empower young people to make informed choices about their digital usage? Another article worth reading: Here’s an alternative to banning smartphones in high schools.


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