Cellphones have taken over our classrooms, and it’s been a disaster. Now that we know the effect screens have on our children, we need a new approach.
This week, in a time-honoured tradition, kids across Canada will pack up lunches and pencil cases and, with some combination of trepidation and excitement, head off into a new school year. But unlike any generation before them, most of them will also pack a cellphone.
Roughly half of Canadian children aged 7 to 11, and nearly 90 per cent of teens, now have a cellphone. These kids are both pioneers and guinea pigs. And as the effects of cellphones on kids’ mental, emotional and physical health become more evident, it’s clear that this technological revolution has gone too far, too fast.
But there’s no turning back the clock. The challenge now is to empower kids to use phones productively, and Step 1 on that journey will be removing them from a foundational place in kids’ lives where cellphones have nothing to add and much to take away: school.
A report released this summer by UNESCO, the United Nations’ education, science and culture agency, recommended a universal ban of cellphones in schools, given the negative effects they are demonstrated to have on students’ academic performance and emotional stability.
Roughly one in four countries has introduced some form of cellphone restriction in schools. China mandates that no more than 30 per cent of classroom instruction can involve technology. France banned cellphones in schools through Grade 9 in 2018, and in the Netherlands, no cellphones or tablets will be permitted in classrooms starting in 2024.
Canada is reticent. Ontario is the only province to have a cellphone ban on the books, and the policy is toothless in practice. Last week, Quebec announced that it too would be instituting a ban, but educators expressed concern that the continuing allowance of cellphones for educational purposes would render it ineffective. Similar legislation proposed in Nova Scotia and B.C. has been shot down.
So what’s going on? Has the education system embraced the cellphone, or is it being throttled by it? Are educators blinkered to the consequences of phones, or paralyzed by them? And how did it come to this?
Looking back, educators’ initial gut reactions to the cellphone were right. In 2007, a committee of Toronto District School Board trustees met to hash out the board’s first cellphone policy. “Whereas, these devices have the ability to be used as cameras, video recorders, phones and often have internet access,” the committee resolved they be “powered off and stored out of view” in school.
But four years later, the board changed its mind. In the context of “21st century learning,” it believed the cellphone could be a “tool to enhance student learning and support curriculum delivery,” as it stated on its website. Chris Spence, director of education at the time, compared cellphones to calculators – initially verboten in schools, only to become staples of the modern classroom. Thus began a new era, in which teachers were to decide how and when cellphones were used in their classrooms, and students were free to use them in other parts of the school, providing they didn’t disturb others.
What played out in schools in the years to follow was a display of the phone’s darker powers.
Students had trouble concentrating, constantly distracted by their phones’ promise of entertainment and communication. Teachers were spending more time policing the devices than using them for educational purposes. And the bullying that once took place on the playground – the name-calling, rumour-spreading, exclusion, harassment – was migrating online, where it was proving much more virulent and difficult to control.
The public mood shifted. When the Ontario government conducted a major consultation on education in 2018, 97 per cent of students, parents and educators said they wanted to see limitations to the use of cellphones in schools.
The following year, the Ontario Ministry of Education announced what was erroneously described as a cellphone ban. Still in effect today, it compels teachers to restrict cellphone use to educational purposes, while permitting students to use them during lunch and recesses. It also provides exceptions to kids with health or medical conditions – as defined by their parents.
The policy rests on two false assumptions: that teachers are in control of their students and that kids are in control of their phones. All too often, it’s the other way around.
My kids, now entering Grades 8 and 10 at Toronto schools, text me throughout the school day. I can watch one of them selling and buying things on an online marketplace (we share an account). They don’t deny that they’re on their phones in class; it’s normal, they say. In some classes, they’re incentivized to work fast, because they can go on their phones when they’re done.
This isn’t just about cellphones. The education system has been warming to technology in the classroom for a good decade, but the virtual learning imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic opened the floodgates. Much if not most of what goes on in today’s “paperless classrooms” hinges on devices. The priority of school boards has been to ensure that everyone has enough; since September, 2021, the TDSB has been providing Chromebooks – inexpensive laptops – to all students in Grades 5 and 9, for the duration of their studies.
It’s not at all clear that this is a good thing. A growing body of research suggests that the multitasking required by digital devices in fact undermines students’ ability to absorb, retain and process information – in other words, to learn. As the UNESCO report points out, most of the evidence cited in defence of education technology is provided by the private companies that are selling it. They have been remarkably effective in ensuring that technology’s ascendency goes largely unchallenged.
And in what is now a sea of school-provided and personal devices, it’s virtually impossible to draw a line between educational and non-educational use. How do you prevent a student doing online research on their phone from responding to Snapchat notifications? What teacher can ensure that all their students are on Google Classroom and not YouTube?
The problem here is twofold. For one, students are not getting the education they deserve. For another, they’re learning that the rules don’t matter.
They’re right: Cellphones are proving more powerful than the rules that govern them. At a curriculum night at my son’s high school last fall, one of his teachers explained to parents that, when asked to store their phones in desks or knapsacks, some students were so anxious that they “couldn’t learn.” As a result, this teacher had decided to just tolerate them.
Other teachers describe the shenanigans that result from cellphone dependency: the half-hour trips to the “bathroom” or the long detours to the locker, where the phone is being stored. One student at my son’s middle school is notorious for sticking her phone down her shirt when asked to hand it over and inviting teachers to retrieve it. Another is known to videocall her mother and stage Oscar-worthy meltdowns.
“This is about an overall abdication of adult responsibility,” says British education-reform advocate Katharine Birbalsingh. Often referred to as the country’s “strictest headmistress,” Ms. Birbalsingh is the founder and head teacher of the Michaela School, a state high school in north London that serves as a showcase for her convictions. One of them is that “cellphones destroy kids’ brains and ruin their social skills,” as she says on a call from her office.
Although cellphone bans have been discussed in the British Parliament, none have been put in effect and it is up to individual schools to determine the terms of their use. At the Michaela School, these are clear. Incoming students are encouraged to swap their smartphones for “brick phones” (with texting and calling capability but no internet connection) that the school provides. Smartphones that are seen or heard on school property are confiscated for up to three months. Ms. Birbalsingh makes no exceptions.
At the heart of Ms. Birbalsingh’s opposition to cellphones in schools is her commitment to equity. The daughter of Indo-Guyanese and Jamaican parents, raised largely in Canada, Ms. Birbalsingh taught in inner-city schools after completing her studies at Oxford. In 2021, she was named chair of England’s Social Mobility Commission, but resigned after being criticized for her outspokenness. If the government cared about poor and marginalized students, she has argued, it would ban cellphones in schools; they are the ones most negatively affected, having relied heavily on the devices for cheap entertainment and child care and unable to afford supplementary academic supports.
Ms. Birbalsingh’s observations are borne out by the research. In his 2015 study, Louis-Philippe Beland, a professor of economics at Carleton University in Ottawa, found that high-school students performed, on average, 6.4 per cent better on standardized tests in schools that had banned cellphones. This didn’t surprise him, but the variation between students did. While high-performing students were barely affected by bans, the weakest students’ test results improved by 14 per cent. (Mr. Beland drew his data from English high schools, which have more standardized testing and proper bans than Canadian ones.) Similar findings have been reported in studies in the United States and Europe. Mr. Beland sees the reduced gap between the strongest and weakest students as the most significant benefit of cellphone bans in schools.
This argument should carry weight in Canada, whose education system is bending over backward to create an equal playing field for its students. Canadian policy makers would bristle at Ms. Birbalsingh’s suggestion that allowing cellphones in schools is part of a strategy to perpetuate inequality, but they remain open to the criticism as long as they fail to get the situation under control.
Doing so requires leadership. Flora Wellsman, a drama and dance teacher at the TDSB for 35 years, has developed a highly effective cellphone policy. She explains it to students at the beginning of each semester – and notifies parents in an e-mail. Students must power off their phones before entering her classroom and store them in a designated area; they can only retrieve them when specifically instructed to do so. If students violate the policy, Ms. Wellsman confiscates the phones and stores them in a vault otherwise used to store money from ticket sales until the end of class.
“Drama is by definition social and participatory,” she says. “Once the phones are out, kids are consumed. They’re sucked into the screen. They can accomplish very little.” Kids behave differently in the presence of phones: more inhibited, more conscious of how their peers might judge them. It’s no coincidence that her class is one of the most popular in the school.
But Ms. Wellsman is a rarity. Many teachers are afraid to physically remove a phone and many principals don’t recommend doing it. They’re afraid of the accusations that may ensue: from parents, claiming that their child has been discriminated against. Or from the students, claiming that their apprehended phone was broken when returned to them – and then demanding that schools pick up the tab.
All too often, principals are afraid to crack down. They bend to the strident minority of parents who insist on their kids’ inviolable right to carry phones – which generally translates as their own need to be in constant touch with their kids. These parents cite their children’s vulnerability; they want to know that their kids are all right. But is this generation truly more vulnerable than previous ones, and if so, why?
As cellphone use has risen, so too have levels of teen depression, anxiety and suicidality. Psychiatrists caution that such trends are never monocausal, but most agree that cellphones – and social media – are playing a role.
“Social media magnifies existing challenges and struggles,” says Elia Abi-Jaoude, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who teaches at the University of Toronto and practises at the Hospital for Sick Children. He sees the magnification happening at both the individual level – blowing up events in kids’ personal lives by broadcasting posts, amplifying rumours and fuelling misunderstandings – and the societal level, promoting the self-diagnosis of certain disorders and psychiatric conditions.
While the interaction between technology and mental health is complicated, Dr. Abi-Jaoude says one thing is clear: the more time spent on phones, the more profound their impact. And teens who are heavy phone users tend to suffer sleep deprivation, poorer academic performance and lower self-worth. Dr. Abi-Jaoude would like to see more research into how cellphones are influencing other trends among youth.
One of the most disturbing of these is the rise in violence in schools. As of April, 323 students had already been suspended from the TDSB for violent incidents, putting the school year on track to be the most violent since record-keeping began in 2000. A survey conducted by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario corroborated the finding: 52 per cent of respondents said they had experienced an attempt of physical force against them this school year. Of those, 70 per cent reported having taken sick leave to recover from the physical harm.
Hallway skirmishes and playground brawls may be as old as school itself, but the level of violence is new, as is the presence of cellphones. This past winter, a classmate of my son’s was attacked in the hall of his midtown Toronto high school between classes. Video of the incident – filmed by a fellow student on her phone – shows the teen curled in the fetal position on the floor, being repeatedly hit and kicked in the head by two of his peers. The video was posted on social media and went viral; my younger son, who attends a different school, had already viewed it by the time he got home that afternoon.
I expected some communication from the school, condemning the incident – not just the attack, but its immediate dissemination as entertainment. Nothing came. Asked at the next parent council meeting why not, the school’s principal explained that – in keeping with board policy – he didn’t want to alarm parents, and the privacy of the minors involved had to be protected.
Evidently, the school board has not yet wrapped its mind around the new reality. There is no privacy when incidents are being shared thousands of times online. And parents need to be informed: not to name and shame individuals, but to understand the forces at play in our kids’ worlds. And to realize that cellphones are not inherently protective. As it turns out, the attack on my son’s classmate was the culmination of a campaign against him on social media.
This should give pause. If kids’ instinct is to film rather than intervene; if they see violence as an asset on their social-media feed; if they believe that online rumours justify assault, should they really be carrying around phones?
Neither the TDSB nor the Toronto Police Service – which, at the instigation of the victim’s family, pressed assault charges against the alleged attackers in this case – systematically track the role of cellphones in violent incidents, but it might be time to start. Incidents like the one that happened at my son’s school go unremarked unless the outcome is tragic, as was the case of Adriana Kuch, the 14-year-old New Jersey student who died by suicide in February, two days after a video of her being assaulted by fellow students in the hall of her school circulated on TikTok.
Some will argue that precisely this abuse of phones and social media underscores the need for them to be present in schools, where educators can teach students to use them responsibly. But is that a teacher’s job? I would argue that it is more the job of regulators to put age restrictions on social media, as was recently proposed in a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate, and the job of parents to rein in phone use in their own lives.
Teachers shouldn’t be saddled with this social ill. An open letter written by an anonymous teacher at a middle school in the Peel District School Board last May decried a “state of crisis” in their school: a climate of violence and fear in which students are “completely ignoring any type of structure in the school, any type of rules.” The staff member’s first request was that cellphones be banned.
Some Canadian schools are taking the bull by the horns. In January, Chatelech Secondary School, on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, instituted a proper cellphone ban after staff noticed a decline in students’ mental health and increasing levels of distraction and phone dependency. Tulani Pierce, the school counsellor who proposed the ban, told the CBC that students’ initial reaction to the policy – which requires that all phones and electronic devices are off before, during and between classes – varied from anger to relief. But five months later, Ms. Pierce said the feedback was entirely positive: improved mental health, less bullying, more engagement in class, more play and better academic results.
The approach doesn’t have to be top-down. Ideally it is not. Some school administrators have worked with students to come up with workable policies: a sealed phone bin behind the teacher’s desk, for example, or one cellphone per classroom that students can use in emergencies. The important thing is that the rules be understood and enforced.
Students may be more supportive than expected. Dr. Abi-Jaoude is struck by the level of concern among teens in his practice about their own phone use. Every few months, my kids swear they’re going to delete certain apps and reduce their screen time. But it always proves harder than they expect. Phones have an incredibly powerful hold on them.
Peanuts were banned in schools to protect the roughly 3 per cent of kids who have allergies; the proportion of kids whose safety, well-being and education are being compromised by cellphones is much higher. Phones don’t belong in schools. And once they’re gone, they won’t be missed.
The Globe and Mail, September 1, 2023
Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.