UAE schools limit mobile phone use to remove 'unwelcome distraction'

A ban on mobile phones was announced in England this week, but many UAE schools already have strong measures in place

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A ban on mobile phone use in England's schools made global headlines this week, but many schools in the UAE made the move long ago.

Schools in England can implement the ban in several ways, including issuing an order to leave phones at home, allowing pupils to keep phones in lockers, or letting pupils to have phones on them as long as they are not seen or heard.

Several schools across the Emirates have introduced their own rules, according to a number of education experts speaking to The National.

"We don't have mobile phones in school for pupil use ... they remain in their bags for the duration of the school day, and they can use them on their way to and from school," said Rebecca Coulter, principal at Dubai British School Jumeirah Park.

“We found that the interference from [using] phones stopped pupils from accessing the quality of learning, they were an unwelcome distraction, particularly with the use of social media.

“We made the move a couple of years ago to remove mobile phones from the school and we find this is something that's had a positive effect on behaviour.”

The move in England, announced earlier this week, means that mobile phone use is prohibited in schools there, though it is being left up to staff to decide how that is enforced.

A similar set-up is already in place across a number of schools in the UAE.

“The use of mobile phones now among young children is significant," said Ms Coulter.

“There is a very high percentage of children in possession of mobile phones, which can have a real benefit but also exposes them to social media, and maybe content that is not appropriate for their age."

“A lot of people have grappled with the effect it's had on the mental health of children. There is a detrimental effect from the use of social media, particularly in teenagers and young children."

She said parents supported the move.

Ofcom, the UK's communications regulator, pointed out that by the age of 12, 97 per cent of children have their own mobile phone.

Social media use has been linked with a decline in mental health, with the Arab Youth Survey 2023 finding that 60 per cent of young Arabs thought it was having a negative impact on their mental well-being.

Only on request

Rashmi Nandkeolyar, principal at Delhi Private School Dubai, said pupils at the school were not allowed to carry phones to class, unless there had been a special request made by a parent.

Even then, pupils were required to hand over their phones to a supervisor who would return them at the end of lessons.

“It would be very distracting otherwise and definitely add to bullying and other issues,” said Ms Nandkeolyar.

Matthew Burfield, senior vice president of education at Gems Education said all of the seven schools in his cluster had banned phones.

Gems Metropole School in Motor City has had a ban on phones on campus for the past nine years, he added.

"Since its inception, there have been no mobile phones allowed in the school. We don't allow mobile phones for children across any of the age groups. The only mild exception is in one of my schools, which is in Sharjah, for the sixth-form pupils," said Mr Burfield.

"In my schools, they are asked to place them in their lockers when they come in during the morning, and they are allowed to then collect them as they leave."

Avoiding distractions

Punit Vasu, Indian High Group of Schools' chief executive, said mobile phones were not a suitable device for learning.

“The school doesn't promote the usage of phones because it may lead to distractions," said Mr Vasu.

Excessive use of phones has been linked to harming eyesight and, previously ophthalmologists in the UAE encouraged parents to reduce their children’s screen time after seeing more young patients come to them with eye complaints.

Ian Thurston, principal of Dubai International Academy Al Barsha, said phones were not allowed to be used during the day there.

"Students below grade four are not allowed phones at all and while it is accepted that secondary students may have a phone on them during the day, we expect it to be invisible, in that we do not want to see them or hear them," said Mr Thurston.

The only exception is if a teacher gives permission for a phone to be used for educational purposes, such as creating a video.

Mum's the word on phones

Faten El Hajj, a mother of two in Dubai, said there was no point in children having phones in the classroom.

“This is interrupting them. It makes them feel like they are allowed to use social media or communicate with people outside," said Ms El Hajj.

“I feel that there is no benefit at all from the phone being with the kids in the classroom."

She said pupils could always use the school’s phone in case of emergencies.

Souha Itani, from Lebanon, a mother of four in Abu Dhabi, said pupils needed phones while travelling to and from school but not in the classrooms.

She said her children could call a parent during breaks or between periods.

Phones are extremely useful for quickly locating children when picking them up after school, especially during the hot summer months, she added.

Updated: March 28, 2024, 9:47 AM