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Confronting Cell Phones in the Classroom

A United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report released in July 2023 says the use of smartphones in the classroom can be beneficial but can also be detrimental to the students learning. 

“The digital revolution holds immeasurable potential, but just as warnings have been voiced for how it should be regulated in society, similar attention must be paid to the way it is used in education,” said Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General. 

When a phone receives notifications while a student is learning, the subtle buzz in their pocket will break their concentration, distracting their focus. One study referred to in the UNESCO report suggests that students might take as much as 20 minutes to regain focus after such a distraction. 

A separate study of students in Belgium, Spain, and the United Kingdom found that learning was enhanced when students were not allowed cell phones in the classroom, and underperforming students showed a substantial increase in academic performance. In France, smartphones are allowed in schools in specific situations where the phone is being used as a teaching aid or for students with special needs.  

The primary issue with cell phones in classrooms is the distraction the phones cause. Research paints a clear picture that multi-tasking or distracted focus has negative consequences on the degree to which an individual is capable of focusing on their primary task. This principle applies to students trying to study with their cell phones nearby. 

The lack of focused attention decreases the capability to absorb information as the level of engagement with the primary task is splintered by the factor of distraction, in this case, the cell phone. Smartphones, capable of tasks ranging from talking to friends via Facetime, text message or phone calls in addition to tens of thousands of apps and a multitude of social media platforms, are digitized distractions which make it more difficult for us, primarily students, to focus. 

While many school districts have determined the removal of cell phones and the outright banning of smartphones in schools as an immediate benefit, many parents have taken issue when they cannot reach their kids any time of day. The inability to freely communicate with their child is a top concern for parents who are accustomed to frequent communication with their kids. In the era of all-day connectivity, it is an adjustment that many parents are not ready or willing to make. 

With these changes comes the responsibility of the schools and districts to ensure that students and parents are aware of cell phone policies to help avoid misunderstandings while these policies adjust to new studies and data. Surely, this year, and every year after, will continue to see these various policies come and go while education systems worldwide seek to create the best possible environment for students to have the best chance to learn effectively. 

In the last decade, there has been a revolving door of smartphone-related policies in schools everywhere, but a unanimous conclusion as to what the best strategy for properly dealing with the issue has yet to be determined. While schools and school districts struggle to find the right answer, governments at the provincial, municipal and state levels in North America fight the same battle. South of the border, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 77 per cent of schools in the United States had prohibited cell phones for “non-academic purposes” in 2022.  

Additional concerns pertaining to cell phones in schools pertain to how students engage with one another socially. While social media is intended to bridge the gap between distant friends, it also creates a divide between digital socialization and personal face-to-face interaction. Many teachers across the country report students on lunch and recess breaks engaging with their phones rather than playing or enjoying each other’s company like kids of previous generations. 

According to Statistics Canada, half of Canadian children between 7 and 11 years old have a mobile device of their own, be it a smartphone or tablet. The same study revealed 87 per cent of those between 12 and 17 years have their own mobile device, most of which are cell phones. The policies of schools and school districts across the country vary from one to another. Some schools allow students to bring their mobile devices to school but require devices to be left in lockers. Other schools have adopted a policy of students leaving their phones in a specific box or bag kept by the teacher until the conclusion of the class. 

Parents in New Brunswick called upon the province last week to ban cell phones in schools for fear of the effect cell phones have on teenagers. Among those who have stepped forward is Kelly Lamrock, a New Brunswick teacher who sees the impact of cell phones on students every week. Lamrock, who is also a debate coach, told a legislative committee he recognizes the diminishing ability of students to make a prolonged argument in debates compared to years prior. Additionally, Lamrock referred to a stark decline in mental health among students, which they state is a result of what they are exposed to online. 

“How many children today are processing really terrifying and worrisome world events, sitting up at 2 AM with their phone in their hand with sources of information who may not be good-faith actors,” Lamrock told the legislative committee. “They see tons of conflict with very little arbitration and explanation.” 

To this, provincial PC member Dorothy Shephard asked Lamrock what role the government had to play in what children are shown on their phones. 

Other provinces have begun to take a firm stance pertaining to cell phones in the classroom. Cell phones are restricted in schools across BC in an effort to keep children safe from “online threats.” Similar policies are in place across Quebec. Meanwhile, in Ontario, cell phones are only allowed in classrooms if they are used for educational purposes or for students with special needs or specific mental health needs. Students in Ontario are still allowed to use their personal devices during lunch or recess breaks. 

While we see these different policies, we have a collective opportunity to learn what works best for students and which policies seem to have little or no effect on improving the well-being and academic performances of students. What we can glean from these approaches is a multitude of data sets that school and government officials can use in the coming years to create useful and practical policies. 

While cell phones and classrooms have never been splendid company to one another, there is a new era of technology where smartphones are a necessary part of engaging in the modern world. From paying bills to checking menus to checking your bank or keeping an eye on your investments, smartphones and the easy access we have to the internet is a knot we cannot undue but can only learn how best to navigate and live with. At times, these are obstacles, but they are also the greatest tools that most Canadians have in their pocket. In 2020, 84 percent of Canadians reportedly own a cell phone, according to Statistics Canada, including 96 per cent of Canadians between 15 and 44 years old. 

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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