Sunday, September 03, 2023

Cellphones in schools - where are we now?

The issue of cellphones in school has been discussed and debated for some twenty years now, and we don't seem to be any closer to a consensus or a solution.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is unequivocal: its research has led it to recommend a universal ban on cellphones in schools, due to the demonstrable negative effects on student academic performance and emotional stability. UNESCO points out that most of the research cited in defence of technology in education has been provided by the private companies that are selling it. 

Well, I believe UNESCO; why don't countries and school authorities throughout the world?

The thing is, most countries do believe that UNESCO is quite right, but banning cellphones is a harder proposition than it sounds. In practice, about a quarter of the world's countries have instituted some kind of cellphone restrictions in schools, but most of these are severely curtailed in some aspects, and their application and enforcement are far from ideal. 

In Canada, Ontario (of all provinces!) is the only jurisdiction to have a cellphone ban in force, although its policy is all but toothless in practice. It theoretically restricts cellphone use to educational purposes, while permitting their general use during lunch and recess. Quebec is said to be thinking about a ban, and previous attempts by British Columbia and Nova Scotia have failed miserably. Other provinces are firmly on the fence.

One of the main arguments against banning cellphones is that they have a genuine educational role to play, "To enhance student learning and support curriculum delivery", as the Toronto District School Board phrased it a few years ago. But the constant lure of distractions has always proved too strong to balance out any good cellphones might be able to claim. 

It has been shown repeatedly that teens who are heavy phone users tend to suffer sleep deprivation, poorer academic performance, and lower self worth than others. Cellphone use among youth shows all the hallmarks of a full-blown addiction, complete with withdrawal symptoms. Levels of teen depression, anxiety and suicidality have sky-rocketed. In-school violence has peaked, often as the culmination of a social media bullying campaign. (These violent incidents are often filmed - on cellphones - and run viral on local social media networks). Kids themselves are worried about their own phone use, and imposed bans are often very popular among most of the impacted students. As one educator puts it, "cellphones destroy our kids' brains and ruin their social skills". Ouch.

In a major consultation on education in Ontario in 2018, 97% of students, parents and educators said they want to see limitations on the use of cellphones in schools. So, why are we not seeing it?

In practice, it is largely left up to individual schools, and even individual teachers, to decide how to treat cellphones. A few, considered radicals, have successfully achieved an in-class ban (and concomitant academic improvements), but most prefer to take the easy way out. And you can understand it: what do you do when a teenage girl stuffs her phone into her bra and says "come and get it" (yes, it happens!)? Or when parents complain that young Johnny becomes anxious and depressed when he doesn't have access to his cellphone (or that the parents do)? Or when parents claim their child was discriminated against?

Some of the few brave souls that have managed to institute a cellphone ban (and make it stick) have seen some dramatic improvements in academic performance. A 2015 study (yes, I know that's 8 years ago, but the principle persists) showed that high school students where cellphones were banned in class did 6.4% better in standardized tests. And, crucially, the weakest students did 14% better, while the effect on high-performing students was almost negligible. If we are serious about trying to level the academic playing field for students, this is surely a key finding. (Other studies in the USA and Europe back it up.) 

So, not an easy problem with a one-size-fits-all solution. But the research is there, and where there's a will there's a way.

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