The dark side of smartphones at schools in Pakistan

Can awareness sessions make a difference?
Aug 24, 2021

Expulsion was certain when a private school student in Karachi took a photo of a teacher with her male colleague and gave it a controversial edit.

The image was widely shared on Messenger through a fake account and created quite a scene.

According to the chemistry teacher who taught at the same school until recently, it took staff a “prolonged investigation” to get to the student behind the doctored image. Although it happened many years ago, it is still discussed in staff rooms.

“It is true that most students bring phones to school for emergency purposes,” he told SAMAA Digital. “But some manage to sneak their phones into classrooms instead of submitting them at reception where they are taped with the student’s name.”

He shared stories of a few more examples in which smartphone use led to the expulsion of students. They included a gang of bullies filming their classmate crying and a teacher using inappropriate language during lessons.

The hidden presence of mobile phones in classrooms may not be surprising today.  Humaira Jamil, who has nearly 17 years of experience teaching at schools in Karachi (now at Hamdard Public), said that most students bring phones to watch songs, play online games and a few of them have been caught watching objectionable content. Humaira has seen cell phones go from being a novelty for students, to becoming an extension of the young person's identity as manifested through their TikTok persona online. Smartphones have become an instrument of blackmail with which they can now secretly take photographs.

What can be done about cell phone use: an experiment

The increasing penetration of cell phone use in school-going students has begun to ring alarm bells for parents and teachers but what can actually be done to address this tech culture? One experiment was conducted and its results turned into a study.

Several psychiatrists got together to do a study. Their findings were published as The Dilemma of Mobile Phone Overuse. They found that awareness sessions for teenagers can reduce their screen time and dependence on mobile phones. The study was done at three Karachi schools, The Learning School, The Headstart School and Beaconhouse School, and involved a total of 385 students.

The goal was to evaluate the use of mobile phones in school-going adolescents after conducting a session with them on information, security and the negative impact of smartphones on health. Permission and consent was acquired from the parents of participating students.

The participants were then interviewed a month after the session to study changes in their behaviour and reliance on mobile phones. It generated interesting results:

  • About 346 students (89.9%) reported using the phone to communicate with their family. The figure dropped to 328 (85.2%) after the session.
  • Students using mobiles to call their friends or classmates decreased to 276 (71.7%) from 331 (86%).
  • Students who used phones to play online games dropped to 154 (40%) from 261 (67.8%).
  • Students communicating through social apps reduced from 265 (68.8%) to 183 (47.5%)
  • And those who used phones for sending SMS decreased to 184 (47.8) from 260 (67.5%)
  • Prior to the session, the average duration of calls a day was reported to be roughly 18 minutes, which declined to 15 minutes.
  •  The average length of a call a day was nearly 6 minutes, which declined to 5 minutes.
  • An average 163 minutes spent on the internet decreased to 140 minutes a day.
  • The number of participants who kept their phones turned on while sleeping dropped to 194 (50%) from 209 (54%)
  • Participants who believed that mobile phones have a negative impact on health increased to 327 (85%) from 108 (28%) 

Do we have enough workshops?

Schools have their work cut out. It isn't clear how many of them are organising workshops to educate their students about the effects of mobile phone overuse and the lasting damage that uninformed use of the internet can have. 

The chemistry instructor admitted that there have not been any sessions on the use of mobile phones at his school. “I can’t recall anything like that happening at any of the five schools where I have taught,” he added.

A tenth grade student from Pingu’s English School said that there was only a single workshop on the overuse of smartphones at her school, but it was not for students.

“It was sort of a training for parents held three years ago,” her mother said. The three-day session was conducted by regular faculty. On the second day, a working mother turned on a teacher for telling students to look up on the internet the topic they covered in the class.

“How can you tell our children to use phones just like that?” she had said. “We’re not always around. How will we know what kids are up to?” In her opinion, teachers asking young students to use the internet for their assignments give them an excuse to use phones.

Humaira said that there is no formal training at her children’s school and that they aren’t allowed phones. Six students from different schools have confirmed that it is very much the same culture at their institutions.

“In case of an emergency, they can contact through the office phone,” Humaira said. “There are no workshops, but we teachers keep telling students about the pros and cons of phones.”

Age-appropriate sessions

According to Fareeha Kanwal, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the Institute of Professional Psychology, mobile phones and the internet have become a necessity during the pandemic. But that does not mean these awareness sessions won’t work.

“Something is better than nothing,” she said when asked if an expert (educationist or a psychologist) must be present at workshops. “Their presence would only add to it. But if only regular faculty is available then that’s fine too.”

She believes awareness sessions will work better if they are age-appropriate. “When we told students about the overuse of smartphones before the pandemic, it came from a frame of mind where one primarily thought that phones were being used for recreational purposes.”

Fareeha responded to parents not approving of teachers telling their children to use phones for schoolwork by saying, “It’s almost impossible today to not have students use the internet for their work.” 

She emphasised, however, the need for discipline when it comes to allowing children to use phones. The websites, duration, and timings have to be monitored by parents.

For older students, Fareeha said, why not have sessions on the "effective" use of mobile phones rather than its "overuse"?

The Dilemma of Mobile Phone Overuse states that Asia has the largest number of internet users, almost 45% of the world's total population. Young people face high levels of anxiety when their phones are turned off. This excessive screen time leads to adverse physical, psychological and developmental effects in adolescents.

The study was approved by Jinnah Sindh Medical University Karachi.

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