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Cellphones turning kids into zombies - Schools must nip scourge in the bed

By Fred Khumalo | 2015-09-26 07:11:33.0

The other day I was invited to speak at a school in KwaZulu-Natal where one of my childhood friends is a teacher.

It is always a pleasure to interact with young people who are not related to me and do not know much about me and therefore are not obliged to be polite or "respectful".

It gives me the opportunity to see young people in their natural habitat because, let's face it, it's at school that young people spend most of their lives.

It is also at schools that you can "catch" them if you want to communicate with them, perhaps make some interventions regarding their career plans, or even give some good old inspiration and motivation.

During these talks I usually share the experience of growing up in the township under tough circumstances, and still managing to finish my schooling there.

It would be an understatement to say I was shocked at the lack of discipline I saw at the school.

When I was growing up it was expected of a child to greet older people that he or she came across - especially on school premises. In some of the schools I have been to in Johannesburg and KZN, especially in former Model C schools and their private counterparts, I still get "Good morning or good afternoon sir".

One of the most obvious areas of concern during my visit to the school is that as I was speaking on the stage some of the children were on their phones tweeting, or doing whatever else they fancied.

Others were giggling as they shared messages and footage on their cellphones. Two of them actually picked up calls and proceeded to speak.

The teachers stared right ahead as if nothing out of place was happening. I had to pause and ask the children to at least wait until I was done before they went back to their phones.

It was as if I was the odd one. They looked at me, giggled, and went back to their phones. Those children were not at school. They were there in body but not in mind. And it didn't seem to bother them.

I was so pissed off I left the place as soon as I was done with my little speech. Only afterwards did I phone the person who had invited me. He apologised profusely, but I knew I was wrong to have expected him to have ameliorated the situation. It was beyond him.

At some schools - especially those in the townships - discipline has gone completely out of the window. Teachers are scared of their pupils.

But I want to go back to cellphones.

It is true that cellphones have improved the quality of life. People can do their banking on them, they are helpful in emergency situations and save lives.

But in the wrong hands at the wrong time, cellphones can be a scourge.

They have become something of a demon that possesses our children. This is a global problem. For example, in Britain, the department of education has commissioned a study into the impact of these modern must-have devices on the grades and behavioural patterns of school children.

Some teachers in England have come out in defence of cellphone technology, arguing it is part of the education arsenal. There might be some merit in that argument.

But there is a huge difference between keeping cellphones in class as an educational tool and allowing them to run the lives of these poor little children. I am not exaggerating when I say many children become zombies once they have cellphones in their hands. You can't get through to them they are so distracted.

In fact, a study was done in Britain by Louis-Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy of the London School of Economics that proved phone-less classrooms improve performance.

At my daughters' school, children get dispossessed of their phones as soon as they get into class. To benefit from the positive sides of telephony as an educational tool they then use tablets in class.

This proves that you can strike a balance - using technology for educational purposes, while limiting levels of cellphone interference during the teaching and learning process.

One point I need not stress enough: children access porn on their smartphones during school hours. Pornography can be distractive and destructive to young minds under the best of circumstances; even worse on school premises during school hours. This could explain why children as young as 10 are raping others at our schools.

At the beginning of this column I expressed despair. Yes, some of our schools are lost causes. But there are some that can still be saved.

Some of these schools have the power to control the use of smartphones during school hours; all that is needed is for those in positions of authority to use their power. A teacher can take her pupils' phones away as soon as school is about to begin, and hand them back when school is over.

It can be done; it has been done. For the sake of our children.

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