In a move that will make NSW politicians relieved that school-aged children still can’t vote, the state’s Labor Party has announced a $2.5 million research fund into screen-related addictions in young people – and a ban on mobile phones in classrooms if elected in March.

“There is currently a lack of consistent data about the impact of screens, video games and mobile phones on young people and their learning,” NSW Labor leader Chris Minns said in joining NSW Shadow Minister for Education and Early Learning Prue Car to announce the new research fund.

“It’s important that both parents and teachers have all the facts on the impacts of screens and devices on childhood development.”

The fund, to be administered by the Department of Education’s annual grants budget, will be delivered to universities, researchers, and what Minns called other “relevant organisations” to support research work that “will help get a better understanding of the impact of excessive screen time, video game, and mobile phone use on young people and their learning.”

Noting estimates that young people’s overall screen time and gaming time increased by as much as 71 per cent during the pandemic, the party is eager to wind back habits that have coincided with plummeting educational performance – with the state’s PISA rankings dropping precipitously since 2006, to the point that NSW was recently ranked 23 in the world in reading, 31 in maths, and 23 in science.

“While growing device addiction in schools is not the only cause of the problem,” Minns said, “screens are certainly a major part.”

The fund debuted as a Labor-led roundtable united education, child psychology and cyber safety experts to discuss addiction to mobile phones, screen time, and video games – a trifecta of youthful pastimes that has been linked to everything from obesity and behavioural problems to loss of social skills, anxiety, depression, neck problems, gambling problems and, depending on which studies you read, elevated or reduced performance at work or school.

With statistics suggesting up to three per cent of NSW’s population “use screens and video games to the point of having a disorder”, screen addiction has become so concerning around the world that China recently imposed a blanket ban on children playing more than 3 hours of video games per week.

The launch of the research fund saw Minns double down on the party’s commitment to extend the current primary school ban on phones to secondary schools as well.

Such a ban – which Minns said would bring NSW in line with similar policies in South Australia, Victoria, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory – would require all students to restrict their use of smart watches, tablets devices, and headphones.

They would be required to turn off phones during school hours and keep the devices “off and out of sight until the end of the school day”.

No more games about games

With the NSW state election looming on 25 March and many commentators expecting it to become a referendum on the struggling cause of conservative governments, the mooted technology ban is unlikely to resonate well with students, for whom digital devices have become an integral part of their everyday functioning.

And while the NSW Labor policy would allow for “logical exceptions” if the device was necessary to monitor a health condition – or at the “direct instruction of a teacher for an educational purpose” – it’s not clear how making classrooms tech-free would affect schools’ ability to drum up student enthusiasm for tech careers.

Such careers are back on the table after the Albanese Government, amidst the announcement of significant support for the creative arts, moved to invest nearly $300 million in arts and culture funding – including the revival of the digital games scheme and $12 million to develop Australia’s video game industry.

It’s part of a broad package of policies and funding designed to spur large-scale investment in a domestic gaming industry that is expected to generate $4.1 billion ($US2.7 billion) out of a global market expected to reach $344 billion ($US221.4 billion) this year.

Supporting that growth will require constructive engagement with students whose technology usage patterns during school feed their interests at university and beyond – but Minns remains unapologetic about the proposed blanket ban on devices that, he said, can facilitate bullying and “interrupt education in the classroom [and] face-to-face engagement in the playground”.

“It means we don’t have a generation of kids having handball tournaments or mucking around with their friends,” he said. “The school playground was some of the best memories I had from school.”