Children as young as seven are playing with wearable devices such as smart watches in the classroom and bypassing teachers to message parents, in a growing issue for NSW schools.
One inner west primary school wrote to parents last week in response to a few occasions on which children had contacted parents directly from their devices during the school day.
"Please remind children who wear mobile devices to school that any issues should be reported to a teacher first and that in case (such as illness) when parents need to be contacted, this is done through the school office," the letter states.
"We also ask that parents remind children that wearable devices should be treated the same as mobile phones at school, i.e. not used to call and text between 9am and 3pm."
The school said sending and receiving messages during learning time was distracting and the devices should only be used as a timepiece and step counter during school hours.
While mobile phones have long been a problem in high school and even late primary school, the proliferation of wearable devices at lower prices means the situation is coming up more often and affecting younger age groups.
A teacher in a public school in the Illawarra told The Sun-Herald she recently caught a seven-year-old boy playing with a smart watch in class.
The NSW Department of Education's mobile policy states primary school students must not use digital devices during class, at recess or lunch unless approved by a principal or teacher for an educational purpose or as a reasonable adjustment for student wellbeing.
Meanwhile, high school principals can restrict or permit student use of digital devices and online services in all school-related settings, including at recess and lunch, in consultation with their school community.
Craig Petersen, the president of the NSW Secondary Principals' Council, said he was not surprised it was becoming an issue in primary schools, given his experience with teenagers.
"Technology is accelerating at a rapid rate and wearable devices are getting cheaper, so parents are supplying devices at an ever increasingly young age," Mr Petersen said.
"Kids in high school have multiple devices and they use this as a ploy - when they are asked to hand over their phone, they hand over a phone but not the phone."
Some parents, such as Paul Dutton from Grafton in northern NSW, said children had a perfect right to contact their parents whenever they needed. "It’s not prison," he said.
However, Mr Petersen said this was a "frustrating" attitude because psychological research showed it taught independence and resilience if children had to solve problems at school without their parents being constantly on call.
Phil Seymour, the immediate-past president of the NSW Primary Principals’ Association, said there was no doubt wearables were becoming more widespread, noting his own 12-year-old grandson had a smart watch and his eight-year-old granddaughter had asked for one for Christmas.
"It's a behaviour issue if they use them at the wrong time in school; it's not a device issue," Mr Seymour said. "It’s the same as with mobile phones."’
Mr Seymour said some parents want their children to have mobile devices because they work and they want to make sure their child gets home from school on time and everything is all right.
Greg Whitby, the executive director of Catholic education for the diocese of Parramatta, said he did not want to cast it as a problem but it was definitely a "challenge" and an increasing one given the rapid pace of technology.
However, he thought the arguments about what could go wrong if children contacted their parents during the day were "pretty spurious" and he would not support a ban on mobile technology.
"It’s about keeping schools relevant in kids’ lives and why would you send them to a place that’s like a black hole?" he said.
"Parents are concerned about their kids’ education but most particularly about their wellbeing and COVID-19 has shown us that and that parents actually do appreciate the greater contact that has come through this."
Mr Whitby said the same issues existed when he worked in the 1970s but children would "just shoot through and run away from school" because they had no way to contact their parents.
A spokesperson for the NSW Department of Education said: "We have no evidence to suggest the department’s policy on mobile devices in schools is becoming harder to enforce due to wearable mobile devices."