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Hackett: Cellphone ban in schools long overdue

"Doom scrolling" may or may not be a phrase you are familiar with.
Byron Hackett Managing Editor

Stop for a second if you are reading this column on your phone or another device. 

Take a minute to notice the environment around you. 

How long have you been looking at said device? What was it that first prompted you to look at that device? Have you been on it all day? How much time do you think you'll spend on it today or even over the weekend? 

(For you dedicated print readers, thank you for your continued support. I'm sure many of you still have devices you use from time to time, so ask yourself these same questions)

As someone who spends about four hours per day on their phone (and it would likely be way more if I didn't use a computer all day for work), I wrestle with the questions above constantly.

It's a continuing struggle for me to pull away from my device and be more present in the actual world. I'm sure I'm not alone.  

I'm like many millennials who were born in an age before devices were such a constant in our lives. I didn't have a smartphone as a teenager, I only got a flip phone in high school so I could call my parents to pick from sports practices or later, when I was driving on my own to tell them I had arrived at the destination. 

Yet, now, many millennials worry about leaving the house without their phones. Many of us even put it on the table face down during meals or scroll endlessly while watching a T.V. 

All this is to say that devices have never played a bigger role in our lives than they do right now and we are being forced to reckon with that connection in a number of different arenas. 

Perhaps the most important is in our youth. Schools around the world are trying to figure out a way to pry students away from their phones and engage in a positive learning environment. 

Many school districts, including several here in Alberta, are turning to outright bans. 

In one 2015 study out of the United Kingdom, it found banning cell phones in schools increased student performance among 16-year-olds by 6 per cent. 

Narrative Research, a Canadian Organization, released polling earlier this year that nearly 80 percent of Canadians support a ban on personal devices in classrooms. 

There is more data supporting a ban in schools.

The Programme for International Student Assessment, a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development evaluates educational systems by measuring 15-year-old school pupils' scholastic performance in mathematics, science, and reading. PISA found a worrying trend about devices in classrooms. 

They said, on average, across OECD countries, 45 per cent of students reported feeling nervous or anxious if their phones were not near them.

In terms of how it impacts learning, they found: 

"On average across OECD countries, 65 per cent of students reported being distracted by using digital devices in at least some math lessons. The proportion topped 80 per cent in Argentina, Brazil, Canada*, Chile, Finland, Latvia*, Mongolia, New Zealand and Uruguay," the report reads.

"Just as importantly, across the OECD, 59 per cent of students said their attention was diverted due to other students using phones, tablets or laptops in at least some maths lessons. Interestingly, only 18 per cent of students in Japan and 32 per cent in Korea reported this level of distraction."

In schools in particular, you can see how this would be highly distracting and detrimental to the learning environment.

For those not in school, it's harmful to our relationships when we spend time scrolling, even in the presence of our significant other or friends, only half listening to what they say. I'm as guilty as anyone about leaving my phone on the table if I'm out with friends when there's absolutely no need for it to be there.

It takes away from being present, but it's also something that, as a millennial, I've been habituated to doing without even really realizing it. This is why some streaming platforms are introducing programs called "second screen" shows. The idea is that we spend so much time on our devices that we can still catch up to whatever show is on while still scrolling on another device. It's ludicrous, but it's ultimately a product of consumer behaviour. 

With devices so ingrained in our culture, how will we tell children they can't have them for eight hours a day? Children will quickly see through the hypocrisy of this ban. Some parents will also empower their kids to push back against a ban like this, putting just another fight on teachers to try and create an ideal learning environment. With overcrowded classrooms and underfunded schools, a ban just downloads more responsibility onto those who are already fighting to try to engage students in learning they don't always see as valuable in the first place. 

Experts almost unanimously agree that a full-on ban will benefit the learning environment in a school, but most aren't really sure what unintended consequences will result. Will we see increased anxiety in students? Will there be a rise in absenteeism because students can't live for eight hours without their phones? 

"We all did it – it shouldn't be that hard."

That might be a common response from people my age and older. But kids today face a digital challenge that wasn't a reality when we were growing up. Distractions are more accessible than ever, in the palm of their hands 24/7. The answers to any question they have are also on their device, so why bother even listening to what a teacher has to say? 

We have to develop a long-term strategy to help kids understand why a ban is necessary and in their best interest. It's a vital point in what would be a massive disruption to their lives. 

The data all points to a ban being necessary to reverse a worrying trend. Most Canadians support it. 

The Alberta Government is currently reviewing the results of an online survey asking about a potential ban on phones in schools. This may be a chance for the UCP to implement policy that could really benefit the next generation. It's clear that something needs to be done – all we can do is hope policymakers, whether it's the provincial government or independent school districts, are able to strike the right balance and find a way to correct this worrying trend. 

Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate and a Regional Editor for Black Press Media. 






Byron Hackett

About the Author: Byron Hackett

I have been apart of the Red Deer Advocate Black Press Media team since 2017, starting as a sports reporter.
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