Wednesday, 27 June 2018
Education (Digital Devices in Schools) Bill 2018: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The Minister is very welcome and I thank him for giving us the opportunity to present this Bill. I also thank Senators Victor Boyhan and Billy Lawless for co-sponsoring it.
While the Bill has been many months in the making, the issue of digital device usage in schools has been brought into closer focus in recent weeks. The Minister will be aware of the 11-week pilot scheme introduced by Mr. Terry O'Sullivan, principal of Blennerville national school in Counthy Kerry. The pilot scheme was introduced in conjunction with parents. Under it the use of smart phones and digital devices by sixth class students was banned outside the school. Students were already forbidden from using them in the school under school policy. Anecdotal evidence already indicates some significant results. Children are interacting more face to face, playing more and the problems that had arisen owing to social media usage no longer arise. The pilot scheme was so successful that the ban has been extended to the whole school. What is exciting about the project is that the effects were almost immediate and entirely positive.
In terms of learning outcomes, the most recent study in an Irish context based on the 2014 data was carried out by the Educational Research Centre which looked at 8,000 primary pupils in 150 schools across the country. Among the findings was that pupils who did not have a smart phone had higher reading and mathematics scores compared to their classroom mates.
The impact of mobile phone usage on academic performance was further confirmed by the findings of the London School of Economics, my alma mater, in surveying schools in four English cities on their mobile phone policy and combining them with administrative data. The investigation concluded that student performance in high stakes examinations significantly increased post the ban. Moreover, a number of studies suggest the distraction caused by mobile phones not only impacts on academic performance but also on social well-being.
Central to the Bill is an acknowledgment of the massive contribution of digital technology to classroom learning. I know this from first-hand experience, having been an information and communications technology, ICT, teacher for many years in the further education sector. I introduced electronic learning into my curriculum in 1995. Therefore, I am totally and utterly convinced of the benefits of the use of ICT in the classroom.
The Bill is not about eliminating technology from the classroom. It seeks to provide a regulatory framework to preserve the educational quality of digital education where sanctioned by the school, while harnessing the attention of school children in a learning environment. Currently, the regulation of the usage of digital devices in both primary and post-primary schools is left to the decision making of the board of management.
In preparing for the Bill I obtained an overview of as many second level school policies as I could. It indicated a wide disparity on mobile phone usage policy in the classroom. For example, certain schools adopt an outright ban on mobile phone usage, while others require them to be turned off and handed up to the class teacher at the start of the school day. Others allow the possession of mobile phones in the school provided children keep them in their school bags and they are switched off on entering the school grounds. While this is entirely in keeping with the provisions of the Educational Welfare Act 2000 under which the board of management agrees the code of behaviour for a school, it allows for an inconsistency in policy across schools. What I am proposing in the Bill is a regulatory framework. I ask the Minister to ensure the introduction of a standardised code of behaviour for students' use of digital devices in all primary and post-primary schools which will contain the standards of behaviour proposed in sections 6 to 8, inclusive, of this Bill.
Section 5 of the Bill requires a board of management to implement a code of behaviour, in addition to any other protective standard the school deems necessary to reduce unauthorised access to digital devices. This is important as it allows an element of discretion on subsidiary considerations that may arise in a unique school setting, independent of the principal prohibiting mobile phone usage. Subsections (3) and (4) also require the school to outline the policy on the use of digital devices in order that both parents and students will be given notice of the code of behaviour operating in the school. Subsection (5) provides that the code of conduct will have to be compliant with section 23(2)(a) and (b) and (3) of the Educational Welfare Act 2000 which sets out the procedural requirement for codes of conduct introduced by the board of management.
Section 6 sets out the manner in which the code of behaviour for digital devices will operate in primary schools. The proposed law requires digital devices in the possession of a student to be labelled and handed in at the commencement and returned at the conclusion of each school day.
Section 7 further provides that students will be deemed to have breached the standards when they are identified as being in possession of a digital device during school hours. The deeming provision reduces the necessity for teachers to engage in an investigative exercise to determine whether a student has breached the provision which would result in less class time. The provisions are purposely simplistic so as to avoid confusion or lack of effectiveness.
Section 8 sets out the three strikes approach to breaches of the prohibition on mobile phone usage and is drawn from an evaluation of the policies of a number of secondary school currently in place. It is accepted that the section is likely to see more application in a post-primary school context. A first offence will attract the confiscation of the device for the duration of the school day. A second offence will attract its confiscation for the duration of the school week and require a parent to retrieve it from the school office. A third offence will involve the confiscation of the device for the duration of the school term and it being retrieved by a parent from the school office. In the situations outlined in subsections (1)(b) and (c) correspondence will issue from the school notifying the parents that the mobile phone has been confiscated and that it can be collected by them from the school office. The section reflects the accepted view that digital education is a necessary tool in a learning environment. It provides discretion for the board of management by which a student will not be prevented from accessing digital devices where such use serves an educational purpose, sanctioned by the teacher as defined in the code of behaviour, or where a parent has made representations accepted by the board that the digital device is necessary to ensure the health and safety or well-being of the child. The latter exception reflects the view that certain children may, for health reasons, require to use a mobile device or for other reasons related to their safety and well-being.
Section 10 has an express provision which requires schools to have in place within the code of behaviour for the use of digital devices in schools a prohibition on cyber bullying, harassment or intimidation and the code shall reflect the internal discipline process which is akin to the existing protocols in place on bullying and harassment within the school as they apply to a non-virtual setting. The section acknowledges that the code of conduct will have to be compliant with section23(2)(a) and (b) and (3) of the Educational Welfare Act 2000 which sets out the procedural requirement for codes of conduct introduced by the board of management.
Section 11 relates to the provision of educational information.The code of behaviour will require the board of management to provide educational information from experts to pupils, parents and staff. The code will endeavour to keep pupils and parents educated on the risks associated with digital devices, tablets or Internet-enabled devices such as cyberbullying, social media security and content management. This reflects the widely accepted view that in addition to regulation of phone usage are the equally beneficial and positive effects of educating parents and children as to the risks connected with inappropriate phone usage. The final section of the Bill envisages that the Minister for Education and Skills would prepare a report on the operation of the Act.
I wish to acknowledge the recently launched digital action plan for schools, which provides for a circular to be issued to schools on the usage of smartphones and tablet devices. I agree with the Minister that whole-of-school engagement, which includes parents, students and teachers, is the best way to formulate policy. I hope that when formulated, a standardised policy will be issued to every school. Clear and unambiguous procedures, such as those outlined in this Bill, will facilitate the use of digital devices in schools for learning while eliminating the possibility of less desirable and possibly harmful consequences.
I am deeply committed to the use of digital devices. I want children to access digital learning and for e-learning to be developed all the way through education and starting in primary school. I know that the Minister is deeply committed to delivering Ireland as the most modern place to educate one's child in Europe and I want to support him in every way that I can. I understand that he may have some difficulty with some of the sections of the Bill as it passes through the Oireachtas. I assure him that I am willing to work with him, his officials and with the trade unions that represent teachers to get the best possible statutory approach to the use of digital technology. I am sure we have all seen the negative side of digital technology. In my time as president of the Teachers' Union of Ireland I had to visit a school where two young children had committed suicide as a result of, or at least from what we understood to be, digital harassment. We constantly hear how the misuse of digital technology has negative effects on children. Indeed, anybody in the same profession as the Minister and I are used to seeing the effect of digital technology because some less regulated people hide behind silly names and attack us from cyberspace. I would be lying to him if I said that such remarks do not affect the mental health of an adult, let alone a child. I apologise to him for the short notice on the Bill. Again, I assure him that I want to work with him and his Department to ensure we get the safest environment in which children can use digital technology in this country. I support his aim to move Ireland forward as a digital economy and one that handles digital equipment and digital learning. I thank him for taking this Bill and hope that he is in a position to support same.
I support the legislation. I welcome the Minister to the House and acknowledge his work on digital technology. He has been very conscientious and vocal about same. I also acknowledge that he published a circular that requires all schools to consult parents, teachers and students on the use of smartphones and tablet devices in schools, which is important. We need to have a tripartite conversation on digital technology that involves parents and guardians, schools in the form of teachers and boards of management, and pupils.
The primary aim of the Education (Digital Devices in Schools) Bill is safety, well-being, mental health and the protection of students. I would not have put my name to a Bill that wanted to reduce the use of technology because I firmly believe we must embrace technology. However, we must educate people about digital technology and how to use it responsibly. As time progresses we will see, just as we have seen in Europe, a greater use of IT systems, platforms and tablets in schools. There has been a shift to using technology and I believe that is positive. Our generation did not learn IT skills but the younger generation has embraced technology. That is a positive move and our usage should be on a par with that everywhere else in Europe.
This Bill outlines a code of behaviour, conduct, protocol or understanding about the best way to use digital devices, phones and netbooks. I own an iPhone and, as I have said before, it has the potential to be a very dangerous weapon when used by the wrong person. On another occasion in the Seanad I shared the experience of two sisters who attended a private school but were bullied, intimated and suffered harassment of a sexual nature while travelling on a bus. When they approached the school's authorities and told of their ordeal they were informed that the matter had nothing to do with them. Other students who attended the school suffered similar abuse when they were on another school trip and wearing the school's uniform. What did those parents do that night? A mother confronted her daughter because she had been concerned about her well-being for some time. The girl told her mother that she had been intimated for many months and begged her mother not to approach the school because she would be further harassed. Subsequently, the girl developed major mental health issues and problems. She did not find a welcome at the door of the school. Needless to say, her parents drove to the private school and confronted the teacher concerned and the parents of the other girl but, unfortunately, they did not get a good reception. One can understand that the school felt, and I think wrongly, that it could not get involved or did not want to get involved because the incident occurred outside of school hours. Who was there for that young girl? It was only her parents who confronted their daughter and spoke to her. Intimidation and bullying is a real issue and damages one's mental health, and sometimes the perpetrator or perpetrators are known. Sometimes other children do not see the danger but we, as adults, must educate and understand the potential danger posed by powerful technology and how it impacts on young people's lives.
This legislation seeks to strike a balance. It is important that we strike a balance between the benefits of using technology for educational purposes and the negative effects of unsupervised use of devices within schools. I reiterate that an outright ban on devices is not the right way to go. I have mentioned technologies such as netbooks, etc. I do not support us having a nanny state and people at the top telling people what they cannot do. I suggest we educate, support and help people to understand the processes and involve boards of management and teachers, parents and guardians of children, and students.
I am sure the Minister will tell us in a minute that the Government does not oppose the Bill at this Stage, which is welcome. I acknowledge the enormous amount of work that he has done to encourage a conversation on digital technology. I note that the UK Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Matt Hancock, recently called for teachers to completely ban the use of phones and mobile phones in schools. I also note that the French President, Emmanuel Macron, has decided to ban the use of mobile phones by children under the age of 15 years. I am not sure that a ban is the right way to go. I would prefer if we educated people and had a conversation because people need to know about the dangers and negative impacts caused when technology is abused and misused. The Bill attempts to develop a clear understanding and protocol - not all policies suit everybody - specific to a particular school where the parties involved sign up to a protocol. That is the best way to proceed.
I thank Senator Craughwell for the enormous amount of work he has done to prepare this legislation. It is good legislation and the fact we are having this debate is very positive. Again, I thank the Minister and acknowledge that he is ahead on this matter and it is clear he wants to listen to all sides of the debate.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I congratulate Senator Craughwell on bringing forward this legislation. I know he has put a lot of work into his Bill and wish him well. I am involved with a school that is the only Apple accredited school in Ireland so I know that the students use iPads on a daily basis. People can download books and use technology to learn. The pupils only use their iPads when supervised in their classrooms. A number of the publishers have condensed their schoolbooks to allow them to be downloaded. The initiative has helped students to reduce the weight of their schoolbags and they can also use the Internet for research purposes.Certainly, the school has been progressive. It started off with transition year students and introduced the iPad on a gradual basis, and now every child in the school has one.
While I accept that the smartphone operates on the same principle as the iPad, I am not 100% convinced that use of the smartphone as a learning tool is the way to go. Perhaps there has been more debate on the iPad and there is not as much temptation involved in its use. I have a concern that children would be on the phone, texting or whatever. While they use the iPad, they do not have the same accessibility if they have free use of it.
I understand the sentiments of what Senator Craughwell is trying to achieve. I believe technology should be embraced in schools and it is a valuable tool. I have a reservation regarding a phone because they could be texting, using FaceTime or whatever. There are other things that they can do on the iPad but it is more or less within the supervised environment.
When we announced that we were introducing technology to the school, there was a process that we had to go through with the parents. We brought them in on an induction night and spoke to them about the uses. Some parents had their reservations but in time they have come around to it and have seen the successes with it.
I understand the sentiments of what the Senator is trying to achieve. While there are some aspects that may be right, there are others that I would question. As the Bill progresses, I am sure we will tease out all those issues.
I welcome that the Minister has said he would like engagement with the schools and that, in turn, the schools should engage with the parents and get their opinions. At the end of the day, the schools have the children while they are in the school but the parents must be happy with what is going on as well.
In terms of the iPad, parents have access to the account at all stages. They can log in and see what their children are doing. There is a portal where the parents can log in and their children's school reports, homework and whatever is all put up on the portal.
I believe that technology has its place and that it is important. It is something that will be rolled-out to schools. I am not knocking Senator Craughwell's Bill by any means and I understand the sentiments. I just have a reservation about phone usage.
I welcome the Minister back to the House today. Deputy Bruton is a regular visitor here and he is always welcome.
I welcome also that through the introduction of this Bill by my colleague, Senator Craughwell, we are having a conversation in this country about digital devices and the harmful effects of the overuse of such devices, not only by children but by adults as well. While we all welcome the advances in technologies and must embrace them, including the use of iPhones or whatever, it is time that we as a society had a general conversation outside of what my colleague here has proposed today regarding the overuse of iPhones in Irish society from a work perspective.
A gentleman told me recently that there is no getting away from work and it is a 24-7 connection with work. If somebody cannot get a person on the phone, they text him or her. If they cannot get the person by text, they email him or her. He had a case recently where a guy said, "I sent you an email there at 10 p.m. on Saturday and you never got back to me until Monday." This is the world we live in. It is in many ways a positive development due to the advances in technology but the invasion of one's private life and family life, and one's lack of time-out, is something that we need to be conscious of and probably need to have a conversation about. I was in a coffee shop a few weeks ago and I sat across from a family I know - a husband and wife and two young children. All four of them were on devices while they were there and there was no conversation. That is not unique to one family. I would say we could all hold our hand up and say something similar. That is something that we need to be conscious of. It is time that we pressed the pause button on where technology is going.
As to the subject matter here today, I compliment my colleague for bringing the Bill forward. I acknowledge everyone who started this conversation about the overuse of digital devices in schools or, for that matter, anywhere. The Daily Mail, among others, has been running with a campaign on banning iPhones in schools. Senator Craughwell has done a great deal of work in this regard as well and I compliment him on it.
From my party's perspective, I am not overly convinced that legislation is the way to go. In many cases, because the world of technology moves so fast, with the best will in the world legislation will always lag behind and find it difficult, and maybe even impossible, to keep up with those advances. I am satisfied to a great extent that the school boards of management and parents' associations are dealing fairly well with this issue. They have taken a sensible approach to the use of digital devices and they have been flexible in that regard and responsive to their advantage.
As to whether there is a need for legislation, I am not closing the door to Senator Craughwell's proposals but I wonder whether it is really needed. We all will be aware that schools have policies on a wide raft of issues. I acknowledge that schools, through the good offices of the Minister, have policies on the use of Internet devices, school bullying and other issues. I have spoken to a number of school principals who, in consultation with parents and boards of management, have their own school policy on the use of technologies and it seems to be working out quite well.
I am certainly not closing the door to what Senator Craughwell proposes. He started a conversation and it is worthwhile that he did so. I look forward to the progression of the Bill. It is merely that some aspects of the Bill would concern me from the point of view of punishment, etc., if a child is found with a device on his or her person. When mobile phones came out at first they were almost the size of a concrete block and now, with advances in technology, they have reduced to the size of a matchbox. In a few years' time, they say, one could have a device on a watch or anywhere. I would have concerns for the future about how schools are meant to police something like this.
On the current system, perhaps a circular issued by the Minister would push matters along in that regard. Overall, schools are doing good work in this area. Senator Boyhan mentioned educating, not only children, but us adults as well, about the potential harmful effects of these devices.I compliment the Senators for bringing this forward. I look forward to the progression of the Bill. My party will have an input into it. I am not against the idea in principle. I feel we have to be conscious of the great deal of good work that is being done at the moment. It is possible that it needs to be tightened up, but I am not convinced that legislation is the only show in town for such purposes. I look forward to the progression of the Bill. I compliment those who have brought it to the House.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I congratulate Senator Craughwell on the introduction of this thoughtful and considered legislation. Senator Gallagher has alluded to the size of mobile devices. I reckon that within a generation, children might be born with them chipped into their DNA. It seems to be going that way.
There is no doubt that technology is one of the most pressing child protection issues we face. I often use the term, "A terrible beauty is born". Over the course of just a few years, the use of the Internet has moved from desktop computers which we as parents could keep an eye on in family homes to smartphones which children keep in their pockets for their private use. Smartphones, tablets and Internet access have huge benefits for families and for society. The potential downsides of the use of such technology are quite serious. They involve cyberbullying, the availability of harmful information online and the significant stunting of children's process of moving towards mature socialisation within their communities and within society. There has been a scary decline among children in reading that involves holding real books. Many children are becoming addicted to technology devices.
We know from the Oireachtas report on cybersecurity, in which I was involved as a member of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs in March of this year, that one in five children has experienced cyberbullying. We are aware that a growing body of work is pointing to the reality that many young children are manifesting signs of addiction to technology devices. The World Health Organization recently acknowledged gaming on devices as an addiction. One of the major recommendations of the joint committee's report on cyberbullying was that an office of digital safety commissioner should be established. Sinn Féin fully supports this recommendation and has been advocating for it for a long time. The establishment of such an office has also been called for by the Law Reform Commission and the Government's special rapporteur on child protection. We believe the introduction of an office of digital safety commissioner should be a priority for the State as it seeks to ensure the digital safety of our young people. Such an office would be a one-stop shop on which parents, young people, industry representatives and legislators could rely for advice on best practice. Such a significant step is required to deal with this complex issue.
The nuances of this issue mean we must be conscious of the consequences of introducing a blanket ban on digital devices in schools, which is what the Bill before the House seeks to achieve. Sinn Féin sympathises somewhat with the reasoning behind Senator Craughwell's legislation, but we do not believe the Bill as it is currently drafted represents an appropriate way forward. It is telling that such a ban was not among the 18 recommendations made by the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs in its report. There are several reasons for this. If they wish, schools can introduce bans in collaboration with parents and school staff. We recently saw an example of this in a school in County Kerry. One of the main reasons for introducing a ban that was given by the principal of that school was to prevent students from using group messages to spread rumours or post unflattering photographs. This proposal does not solve the problem, however, because the same students can establish the same online groups outside school hours. This will allow the bullying to continue. The solution to this behaviour that is needed is an approach that involves educating young people and their parents on how to use social media. Schools and parents can ban whatever they like, but young people are way ahead of the curve. They know more about technology than their parents or teachers. They can find a way around any rule.
We need to deal with the issue of bullying rather than the medium through which it is delivered. We often talk about delivering education on technology. Such education needs to be included in the school curriculum. It needs to be taught in school. This is yet another recommendation from the cross-party report on cyberbullying. Sinn Féin is suggesting that rather than implementing binding legislation, we should allow our schools to remain flexible with regard to how technology is used responsibly in each school. We need schools to be able to decide what works best for them, their students and their parents.
In many circumstances, parents want their children to have phones for communication and safety purposes. It is important for many reasons for children to have access to smartphones while they are at school. Children who walk to school or have long bus journeys to school need to let their parents know they have got there safely, especially in bad weather. Indeed, their parents want to know they got there safely. If a child has plans to meet a friend after school but those plans change or fall through, he or she will need to contact his or her parents to arrange a lift. Parents who work on zero-hour flexible contracts need to be able to contact their children to say they will be working late and alternative arrangements will need to be made. A child who is suffering from mental health issues or is having a bad day, or who is aware that his or her parent is going through a rough time, will want to be able to exchange texts with that parent so they can tell each other how they are doing.
Technology is not the issue. Smartphones and tablets can be very useful when they are used appropriately. If students and parents were educated to use such devices smartly, it would make life easier for everyone. For the reasons I have submitted, Sinn Féin cannot support this Bill, as it is currently drafted, on Second Stage. We believe the common-sense recommendations set out in the cross-party report build on the proposals made by the Internet Content Governance Advisory Group in 2014. We need an office of digital safety commissioner to be established as soon as possible because that is the way forward.
I welcome the Minister to the House again. I join other Members in congratulating Senator Craughwell on the introduction of this Bill, which has facilitated a conversation in this House on the nature of digital safety in the classroom and in schools. It is very easy to support this Bill because of the intent behind it. One hears stories from teachers and parents on the nature of cyberbullying, the pressures on young children, the prevalence of self-harm and suicide and the dehumanising bullying that takes place. It is quite terrifying that smartphones and other means of accessing the Internet are facilitating access to pornography and gambling, thereby causing all sorts of social problems and difficulties in young lives. We live in a country in which children are self-harming and killing themselves because of bullying. Before the smartphone was invented, bullying used to happen on the toilet wall in school, but now people have found a different mechanism to be hurtful. We do not deny that the emotions transmitted through smartphones and digital devices are causing pain, destruction and death. We need to consider how best to regulate the use of these devices and deal with the situation.
We should not be under any illusions regarding the powers and dangers of these devices. If someone awoke from a 30-year coma and walked around the streets of Dublin today, he or she might notice differences in fashion trends, cars and buildings, but the biggest difference he or she would notice after being unconscious for 30 years would be that people are walking around with things in their hands that they are unable to take their eyes off. I think that is the biggest single change that has happened in the last 30 years. It is not just young people who behave in this way. I have a new app on my phone that counts how many hours I am spending on the device each day. I freely admit that I was shocked to learn how often I flip it open and engage with it. As everyone in public life, including the Members of this House, will know, it is easy for people to send us negative or abusive messages in various ways.How do we protect our children from that? It is far too easy for policy makers to say schools are the answer to all our problems. Children do not live in schools. When I was in the classroom, I recoiled from the suggestion that the teacher or school was the answer to any social ill. There was an attitude that, whether the problem was teenage sex, drugs, alcohol, violence, video games or joyriding, if children were taught properly in school, everything would be fine.
In fairness to teachers, their job is to deliver a wide curriculum at primary and second levels. They do their best to care for their children but the children do not live in the schools. In my time in the classroom, we did our best to encourage children to make the right choices but once they step outside the door of the school, it is a different reality and environment, the expectations on them are different and they respond differently to those around them. Children will say the right thing at the right time in the classroom but the reality on the street is very different. If the education system in Ireland really had that much influence over children’s behaviour, mass attendance might be much bigger and the Irish language proficiency of Irish children might be much better. Teachers have a limited level of influence on children which should not be overstated. That does not mean schools should do nothing but if we are trying to solve a social ill, we cannot just say the school is the answer. It is part of the answer. The answer lies with the school and wider communities, parents, politics and the media. Any adult is part of the answer. It is wrong to simply state that the school is the one place where this can be rectified.
Is legislation the right way to go on this issue? I have tossed and turned and reflected on it and, while I absolutely understand the intent behind the Bill, I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say on the matter. Circulars are sent to schools in the Irish education system to guide them on how best to deal with situations and the children under their care. I am yet to be convinced that the introduction of legislation is the way to go. My party and I would be happy to support the Bill in terms of it facilitating this debate in the House but we are very interested to hear what the Minster has to say in response to the Bill because there is a balance to be struck between the ability of a school to run itself in the best way it sees fit and the responsibility of the State to protect children in conjunction with the school.
However, let us be clear that children spend most of their time outside school. This week, schools will break for the summer and children will have two months during which they will not come into any contact with their school but digital devices will be readily available to them at all hours of the day and night. There are significant responsibilities on the corporate sector and those selling these devices in terms of the age of persons to whom they are sold, the types of app available to children and the types of interaction children are allowed to have through various social media outlets We have allowed the corporate sector to run riot without regulation in many respects and whenever we ask it to step in the response has been less than impressive. Members of this Oireachtas have received all sorts of death and rape threats but we have a facility to respond in the House and as adults. I can only imagine what a child would feel if such threats were communicated to him or her through his or her phone.
Senator Craughwell is to be congratulated for bringing his absolutely well-intentioned and well-meaning Bill to the Oireachtas. This is a very useful and healthy debate. Every parent in the country dreads their child reaching an age when he or she asks for a phone. We have yet to resolve the question of how best to empower the school community and parents to adequately deal with that. I am not yet convinced that the Bill is the way to do so but the motivations behind the Bill will go some way to resolving the issue. I am interested to hear the response of the Minister.
I welcome the publication of the Bill and commend Senator Craughwell for facilitating this debate on digital safety. Some Members come at this debate from several perspectives, for example, as legislators and as former teachers, including Senators Craughwell and Ó Ríordáin and me. We are concerned as to whether we can balance the benefits that undoubtedly accrue from increasing digitalisation and technological advances with the negative consequences of modern technology.
I welcome the Minister. We are lucky to have a progressive Minister and that, while our approach may be cautious, child protection and child safety is at the forefront of our policy, as it should. Legislation and regulation is easy but monitoring or regulating the use of an iPad, an iPhone, Fitbit or any other device in a classroom or school community is a challenge. I recognise the intent and import of the Bill and, as I said, we must ensure the well-being of children is at the forefront of this issue.
The growth of cyberbullying among adults as well as young children is alarming. Senator Devine rightly commented on the socialisation of the child. I had a conversation this morning with my sister about whether teenagers today in modern Ireland are better off than when we were growing up. I was conscious that at this time of year when we were teenagers - the Minister will smile at this - we were farming, saving hay, on the bog and a million miles away from a smartphone or computer. We even had to drink tea out of an old bottle with a sock around it. I know I am digressing somewhat but we have changed-----
That is what we did in Knocknagree on the border of Cork and Kerry. However, today's world is far smaller. One can Facetime one’s nephews or nieces and my father can Facetime his grandchildren and watch them performing tasks on the farm, which is extraordinary.
I wish to raise the issue of loot boxes in the gaming industry as part of this debate. It is a different issue but I wish to commend a friend of mine, Eoin Barry, who has extensive involvement in the gaming industry and enlightened me on the issue of loot boxes. The debate on loot boxes is taking place internationally and nationally. It is of importance because they are unregulated. The question of whether loot boxes allow and enable gambling should form part of this debate on digital safety. All Members wish to protect minors and that is the import of the Bill but loot boxes and the unlimited spending associated with them must be part of this discussion. Greater emphasis must be placed on parental controls because some parents do not know what such controls can be about or do not know how to put them in place. Parental controls may also be bypassed by some children or teenagers. I had the pleasure of meeting Dave Sweeney of the European Video Game Federation on this issue. It is a global conversation of which we must be part. Many would argue that loot boxes are akin to gambling and are targeted at young people and minors. The issues of regulation and law is one to which we must return. There is the potential for the normalisation of gambling behaviour in minors through video games. The World Health Organization, WHO, report on gaming addiction was published this week.I hope we can return to that issue. I compliment Eoin Barry on the work he has done with me in arranging meetings and engaging with the gaming industry. We need robust legislation on gaming and loot boxes in Ireland. Many countries are already having a discussion on this.
Notwithstanding some of the issues with the legislation, Senator Craughwell's Bill is an important one. We need to provide a learning benefit and tackle the negative effects of unsupervised use of digital technology. The Minister has been involved with schools through issuing circulars and engaging in communications. I commend the school in County Kerry on its proactivity on this issue. I saw the priest about whom we heard speaking on television last week. I am conscious of the Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill, which will, by law, require all schools to consult parents, teachers and students on a charter of rights and entitlements.
I welcome that this Bill will proceed to Committee Stage. It is difficult to impose restrictions in the school community, as the Bill seeks to do. Smartphones, iPads and other devices can be of benefit to a school community and in the classroom. At the same time, we must recognise difficulties with cyberbullying and also physical bullying in schools. It is important to have this conversation and it is one that we did not have when I was a student and teacher. At this stage, telephones were banned in schools and any pupils found with one was in trouble. Teachers also found themselves in trouble if we used mobile telephones but that is a different issue.
Digital technology is transforming our world. CoderDojo has been one of the best changes we have seen to the curriculum. I commend the Minister on the way he has pioneered many different types of change in the education curriculum. I do not say that in a patronising way but as somebody who does not believe education is about chalk and talk. It has moved far beyond that. I sound like an old man reminiscing. When I started teacher training the acetate sheet was revolutionary. Today, we have interactive whiteboards and various means of communicating and educating, which is brilliant. Digital technologies must be used in teaching and learning to enhance and improve the experience of the child. If the Bill can help achieve that, it will have been a worthwhile exercise.
I commend Senator Craughwell on his proactivity and thank the Minister for not opposing the Bill. We need to have a conversation to enable us to make progress on the issues that have been outlined. This is an important issue which will not go away. We need to continue to have this debate and conversation in partnership with all the stakeholders in the education sphere.
I thank Senators Craughwell and Boyhan for sponsoring the Bill and all Senators who participated in the debate. Everyone agrees that this is an important debate. As previous speakers noted, I do not intend to oppose this Bill.
On the one hand, technology has phenomenal power and can be used to transform education. It is an area of great potential. On the other hand, like any powerful tool, technology can be abused. We see daily the problems created by abuse of technology, including bullying, harassment and sexting. All of these phenomena have elevated the pressure on young people. I understand that we need to have a well informed debate on how to harness technology, teach people to be discerning in its use, keep people safe and avoid the distractions to which many Senators adverted.
The Government is developing a whole-of-Government strategy on Internet safety. Four Ministers recently appeared together before the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs to discuss this important issue because of its relevance to children, justice issues, communications and education. I do not recall any other meeting being attended by four Ministers and in that sense the meeting was historic. The Government will develop a strategy, to be published before the summer, which will address all of the issues we discussed and how we can better integrate services across government to recognise the various challenges, including gaps in legislation, regulation, offences, and international networks for overseeing powerful companies.
I issued a circular to all schools in the spring requiring that they consult parents on Internet safety and the appropriate use of mobile devices in schools. This is a comprehensive invitation to schools to sit down with parents and examine issues such as appropriate and inappropriate use, what restrictions should be in place, what rules should apply during break times and how to achieve a shared approach to what happens at home and in the school, such as that adopted in County Kerry. Senator Ó Ríordáin pointed out that much more time is spent in the home and school principals have told me there is no point in having a strong policy in the school if bullying or sexting continues unabashed as soon as pupils leave the school building. That is why we believe in pursuing an approach of consulting from the ground up and asking schools to examine their policies in consultation with students and with parents.
Ireland applies good practice in this area. To take an international comparison, according to a survey of European Union countries, students in Ireland report that 89% of teachers actively offer guidance compared with an average figure of 69% in the rest of Europe. Moreover, students reported that parents offer guidance in 87% of cases compared with an average figure of 77% in the rest of Europe. Irish people are engaged with the issue of good practice and how it should be developed. The same survey showed that 87% of children reported no use of mobile phones in their school and the other 13% reported restricted use. As such, the survey did not find any cases of unrestricted use in Irish schools. That is not the policy being pursued.
The concept of bottom up discussion of this issue is a strong one. No one can expect officials in Marlborough Street or Members of the Oireachtas to have all the answers to designing the perfect regulation to be implemented at school level. It is important that we hear the voices of students in this debate. Looking around, all of us are probably above the age where we might be described as digital natives. We have to be careful when trying to prescribe practices for a generation who may see the world in a different light. It is important to take the opportunity to hear other voices in the consultation. The Department is sponsoring a parents and students charter and I hope the legislation giving effect to the charter will soon be published. It recognises the importance of partnership because if parents, students and teachers are involved there will be a much better policy as a result.
A great deal is happening in our schools already, as acknowledged by the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. All schools have policies on acceptable use and anti-bullying, including cyberbullying.We have a very good suite of Webwise programmes. I invite Senators to have a look at them because they make up a really impressive suite of programmes that are available in our schools and that deal with being in control. Some of them directly target the issue of sexual coercion and extortion on the Internet. Lockers is another programme that deals with non-consensual image sharing. The Up2Us Anti-Bullying Kit is an online kit. ThinkB4UClick is a junior cycle resource. The list goes on. This is very active and available advice to teachers, parents, schools and students. What is really exciting is the fact that they are using student ambassadors to popularise the need to be conscious of safe use. It is not all top down. Although programmes are devised, they recognise that getting the engagement of students is probably the best way of rolling them out. All of our schools will also be introducing a well-being strategy so every school will be looking at its entire suite of policies to make sure it is supporting the resilience of students. Again, starting next September, every school will develop a digital learning framework. It is currently being piloted in 50 schools.
I am not for one minute saying that we have the last word in policies to support safe use of the Internet. I am sure we do not and we have a lot to learn. However, there is a lot of good practice there and we can evolve the codes, as Senator Craughwell is using, from some of this good practice. There are legal bases for doing that in other parts of the legislation in a way that is not quite as prescriptive as Senator Craughwell's suggestion.
The other thing that is important to say is that we should not undervalue the importance of digital technology. I think Senator Craughwell recognised that at the very beginning of his contribution. I had the opportunity to invite schools to participate in digital clusters. It was oversubscribed by three times. A total of 700 schools applied to become involved in digital clusters recognising the huge power of digital technology to enhance learning. While Senator Craughwell is right to say that there are cases where this mindless and vacant use of a digital device can reduce someone's concentration and performance, it is equally true that properly harnessed, digital technology can promote creative thinking and constructive knowledge - students putting their own knowledge together, which gets much more embedded if they do that. It can promote exciting research, analysis and presentational skills at a level that is not available with traditional chalk-and-talk models or students handing up their copybooks at the end of the project. Some schools are using a bring-your-own device approach so they recognise that the devices that are there can be used and harnessed. Many of our schools avail of the blocking services we provide along with broadband so that if broadband is being used in the school, students simply cannot access certain websites. We have committed to investing €420 million in digital technology over our schools over the next decade. We recognise that there is this other side of it. In every single curricular area, we are asking the NCCA to look at how digital technology can enrich teaching, learning and assessment in that subject.
We must recognise that this is a balance. We have a very powerful educational tool. Young people must learn to be discerning in their use of this very powerful tool, which is the ultimate objective. We want it to empower people to know how they should use it, what is acceptable and appropriate and what its powers and dangers are. That is the ultimate journey we are trying to take.
While I am not opposing Senator Craughwell's Bill, I must sound a few warnings about it being so prescriptive in the way it has approached the issue. We all recognise that we need to have codes and to develop them in a flexible way. Senator Craughwell's Bill does envisage consultation but consultation when there are also very prescriptive sections about labelling and surrendering phones, a prohibition on use with penalty clauses if students are found to be in possession and new obligations on boards, it will smack of a top-down approach. I find that nothing annoys principals as much as when they are told that Marlborough Street has put another obligation on them to do something. Yesterday, Senator Gallagher articulated some of the frustration from principals being told there is another thing they must do. Trying to get this to bubble up from the bottom is the best way to go but we must also have national standards. We must have this sort of debate here and develop a cross-Government policy. The Oireachtas must have a good understanding of what we are doing here and be in a position to recommend new policies.
That is the spirit in which I welcomed this debate. I think we saw the diversity of views. While the majority of Senators saw the need, the alternative view was offered by Sinn Féin. Misgivings regarding asking schools to do too much were expressed. Even Senator Boyhan said that he did not want the nanny state or a one-size-fits-all approach but he did recognise that the attitude of schools must be much more open. This can be achieved by a code. Senator Gallagher rightly pointed to the invasion of family life. Indeed, one of the contributory factors for one of my colleagues was the pressure that came from social media and how that can impact on people. In advancing this discussion, we need to be conscious, as Senator Gallagher said, of the pace of technological change and the danger that regulators always arrive breathless and late, as some have described. Regulators can often chase a problem that turns out to be yesterday's problem while tomorrow's problem has moved on.
We must approach this in a fairly flexible and open way paying tribute to a lot of the really good work that is happening in our schools. Perhaps people do not know enough about some of the stuff that is happening out there and the quality of teaching, learning and resource material being offered to students. I am content not to oppose this and to work with the Seanad and the Lower House to get the best possible outcome. It will be very interesting when we see what is coming back from direct consultation with schools. Many of the practices are quite good but there is no doubt that many will have cause to improve. Apart from Webwise, there is a lot of work in supporting teachers in the digital area. I thank the Senators for their contributions.
I thank the Minister for his pragmatic approach to the Bill. The Bill is a discussion originator. It will start the discussion. Along with the processes the Minister has put in place for consultation with parents, that will stimulate a national discussion. The Minister is 100% correct. Having worked in information technology for 25 years, I spent every summer of my teaching career bringing myself up to speed on the next latest, greatest technology. Technology is something we must embrace and not be afraid of. The one thing I will say about the Minister is that the moment he went into education, he embraced the notion of technology and bringing schools into the 21st century. This will start that discussion in the wider public area. Committee Stage of this Bill will probably see the Bill change quite drastically. I do not want to be prescriptive in any way. I want to give schools as much leeway as I can. I also want our children to grow up understanding technology.However, I have personal experience of my granddaughter who has not been allowed near anything digital at this stage of her life. She is three and a half years of age. I get tremendous enjoyment out of that child's imagination, for example, where we travel regularly on the Luas without leaving her sitting room and where we engage in having coffee and cheesecake without leaving the sitting room, and we visit all sorts of restaurants and she acts as a waitress. It is all down to the fact that everything is learnt from storybooks. I do not want to take that away from children. I also want, when the time comes, for her to embrace the technology.
I welcome everything the Minister is doing. I want to work with him on this. I will support anything the Minister tries to do to make Ireland a safer place for young children. I do not want to see another child harm himself or herself or kill himself or herself as a result of what goes on. I do not want another teacher to suffer the indignity of having some child take an upskirt shot, which is the latest craic in schools. I do not want a young girl or boy to be bullied or harassed, to have the digital device taken off her or him, or worse still. I understand the worst form of bullying for a young girl today is not to get a comment when she puts a post up on her Facebook page. That, I believe, is more destructive than anything.
We will work together on this. I thank the Acting Chairman, Senator Ned O'Sullivan, for his time and I thank my colleagues for their contributions today.