Should phones really be banned in schools?

14.00, 7 September 2022

In the UK, most children own a phone by the age of 11. In China, they get one at an even earlier age, as 88% of students in grades 1 to 3 (ie aged 6 to 8) reportedly have their own laptop . .

They are therefore likely to take these phones to school – encouraged in this direction by their parents, who see an interest in it for their safety. But schools may consider them distracting. In France, their use is prohibited during school hours. That said, such a measure is difficult to enforce, as research with Chinese teachers has shown.

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The alternative would be to make a note in the school rules about the now inevitable presence of smartphones in our daily lives. Our work suggests that students, even in elementary school, have the necessary maturity to contribute to the implementation of such policies.

Regulate uses

Although some studies have shown that banning cell phones can improve the academic performance of students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, this observation is not found systematically in other studies.

These discrepancies from one study to another can be explained by the fact that they focused on different age groups, without taking much into account the children’s maturity and their academic motivation. This is not insignificant, as children with age can use their laptop more appropriately.

For example, 18-year-old students have been observed to only use their phones in between lessons, before the start or end of class, while waiting for a teacher to arrive. Furthermore, it was often an individual activity that did not interfere with learning. But it seems unlikely that younger teenagers or children will behave in the same way.

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On the other hand, rather than considering mobile phones as sources of distraction, they could be used to encourage students to engage in their learning. An initiative such as ‘Bring your own device’, tested in high schools in New Zealand, showed that students’ digital skills improved when they were encouraged to bring their own smartphones and tablets to class, and in that context we also see an increase in exchanges within the class, as well as between students and their teachers.

Instead of outright banning phones, schools could consider policies that integrate a range of digital skills and make young people aware of the risks of screens and networks. In addition to reducing possible distractions in learning activities, this would promote better daily use of smartphones, which will be particularly valuable for children who, by definition, have more difficulty regulating their use of digital technology.

Chat with families

It is important to take into account the views of all those involved in the profession: the teachers responsible for implementing the school policy, the students to whom they address and the parents who are likely to influence their children’s compliance with the rules.

In our study, we conducted interviews in pairs with parents and their 10 or 11-year-old children. First, we asked them a few questions about how they understand the benefits and risks of phones in school. We then presented them with a panel of school regulations so they could tell us what they thought of them.

According to the findings, both parents and children believe that phones are important for staying in touch, while being aware of their risks in the school environment, from bullying to internet access. Neither side supports a policy of total cell phone bans.

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The children participated in the discussions with great maturity and sometimes surprised their parents with their considerations about risks. They know how to distinguish between what is appropriate use and what is not. In addition, in collaboration with their parents, they could come up with ideas for house rules and solutions for enforcing them. A parent/child duo proposed a ‘phone prefect’ role that would have a mobile phone in the classroom for children and parents to use to contact each other throughout the day if needed.

The involvement of young people and their parents in the development of establishment policies makes it possible to increase their effectiveness and even more generally to reduce the uses that cause problems. Consultation of families is recommended, e.g. already in Ireland regarding mobile phone regulations.

A total ban on phones in schools may therefore amount to missing an opportunity to engage and train new generations in the responsible use of mobile phones.

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