UNESCO is pushing for classrooms around the world to ban smartphone use, arguing that the devices distract from learning, are bad for students’ mental health and well-being and come with a host of privacy concerns for young people’s data.
The recommendations come from the 2023 Global Education Monitoring Report published Wednesday, which analyzed global policies on technology use in classrooms and a host of studies about how screens and social media impact young people.
“Only technology that has a clear role in supporting learning should be allowed in school,” the United Nations agency for education and science stated.
The report found that one in four countries have already enacted full or partial smartphone bans. In Bangladesh and Singapore, smartphones are banned in classrooms but not in schools completely. In France, smartphones are used strictly for teaching purposes or to support children with disabilities.
Studies in Belgium, Spain and the United Kingdom cited in the report found that students’ learning outcomes improved when phones were removed from the classroom, especially for students who were already struggling.
With unfettered access, smartphones can wreak havoc on students’ attention and distract from learning, UNESCO argues.
“Incoming notifications or the mere proximity of a mobile device can be a distraction, resulting in students losing their attention from the task at hand,” the report reads, adding that one study showed it can take students up to 20 minutes to refocus on learning once their attention was drawn away.
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This is a phenomenon we’ve known for a while. In a 2017 paper titled Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity, scientists demonstrated that the closer a smartphone was to a student, the worse they performed on a test. Students who were asked to leave their phone in another room performed best, students who kept their phone in their pocket or bag had middling results, and the students who had their phones on their desk performed worst.
UNESCO is also sounding the alarm on how screen time and smartphone use can impact students’ social relationships and mental health, amid an already raging mental-health crisis in young people.
CDC data from 2018 showed that young people aged 11 to 14 on average spent nine hours in front of a screen, with that number dipping down a bit to 7.5 hours for 15- to 18-year-olds. The report also pointed to an American study that showed higher screen time was associated with “poorer well-being; less curiosity, self-control and emotional stability; higher anxiety; and depression diagnoses.”
Another study in the U.K. found that just two hours of screen time a day was associated with more depressive symptoms, poorer educational outcomes and loss of sleep and fitness.
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But David Chorney, a professor in the faculty of education at the University of Alberta, told Global News that such a ban may not be the most effective.
“One policy, a global statement, although good in nature and the root itself is a positive intention,” Chorney said. “It’s not as simple as that.”
He said that while the phones could be removed from a classroom, students are typically in school for about eight hours a day, meaning the majority of time is spent outside where there is unfettered access to their phones.
Calling for a ban would put the onus on teachers and administrators to enforce it, which can be difficult.
What should occur, Chorney suggested, is an openness between parents and their children because communication about phone use is far better than restricting it.
“If you’re aware of what your kid is doing on his or her phone, if you have access to their phone and there’s an openness between you, things should be fine,” he said.
“To ban the phone in a school — well, we’ve already moved so far over the past decade. The train’s already well down the track.”
The widespread use of smartphones has also opened the gates for a new form of bullying — cyberbullying — which can cause direct harm to students’ safety and follows them home even after school is over.
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Sachin Maharaj, a University of Ottawa assistant professor in educational leadership, told Global News the use of smartphones in classrooms “draws attention away from what’s going on around them, and that includes their peers.”
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Bullying has existed since before smartphones were even developed, and with cyberbullying it can still follow children home, but Maharaj said even by restricting it just at school would help limit exposure to it.
“By restricting the use of phones in schools, you would reduce some of that and make it easier for, you know, instances of bullying not to sort of follow kids around forever,” he said.
Chorney said it’s not just schools, however, that need to take action to combat cyberbullying; part of the solution needs to occur at home.
“Ultimately, kids are spending way more time at home than they are in schools,” he said. “So it really is incumbent upon the parents, caregivers, to have a responsibility.”
Rachel Harper, a primary school principal in Ireland who banned smartphones in her school told UNESCO: “We saw children as young as nine years old requesting smartphones, and it was evident that these children were not emotionally ready to navigate the complexities of these devices and the digital world.”
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UNESCO is also concerned about students using applications and software that track its users.
One analysis cited in the report looked at 163 digital education tools recommended during the pandemic. About 89 per cent could survey the children using them.
Because of these privacy concerns, some countries have already started banning specific tech products.
Google Workspace is banned in Denmark and France, while some German states have banned Microsoft products. In the U.S., some schools are starting to ban TikTok.
“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 UNESCO’s director general Audrey Azoulay.
“Its use must be for enhanced learning experiences and for the well-being of students and teachers, not to their detriment. Keep the needs of the learner first and support teachers. Online connections are no substitute for human interaction,” Azoulay said.
Maharaj said he thinks one of the most important aspects of the report points out how little evidence there is that technology can be beneficial for teaching.
“It calls attention to the fact that around the world, schools have been embracing all sorts of digital technologies without much evidence as to how these technologies impact students and their learning,” he said. “The evidence that does exist tends to largely come from the companies that are selling these technologies and the associated software. And so we really need to take a step back and reflect on how these technologies are being used.”
—With files from Sean Previl, Global News