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French schools say 'Non!' to cellphones

Starting Monday, primary, junior and middle school students will head back to classrooms in France sans smar...

Posted: Sep 4, 2018 8:33 AM
Updated: Sep 4, 2018 8:33 AM

Starting Monday, primary, junior and middle school students will head back to classrooms in France sans smartphones. A new law will require them to leave these addictive devices at home or keep them switched off during the entire school day.

Affecting French children aged 3-15 years, the draconian law is the result of a campaign promise by French President Emmanuel Macron who, like many other European leaders, see the devices as a technological scourge that needs to be dealt with through sledgehammer legislation. It's similar to those enacted in other European jurisdictions such as Spain's Castilla-La Mancha region which acted in 2014 to introduce a ban to end the "daily battle" between teachers and students.

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In enacting the law, which extends an existing ban to cover breaks and meal times, French legislators may have had their eye on such research as a 2015 London School of Economics paper which found that schools banning phones produced students with higher test scores.

French officials hope the ban will encourage kids to swap their screen time for healthy time in the schoolyard -- or singing in the school choir. "These days the children don't play at break time anymore, they are just all in front of their smartphones and from an educational point of view that's a problem," said French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, according to news reports.

I think the French policy is regressive and could potentially freeze French students in the technological Stone Age. Rather than an outright ban, better to integrate them into teaching and offer incentives to students to stay off social media during the school day.

Moreover it is an extremely disingenuous policy from a man like Macron. He has vowed to transform France into a "startup nation" -- going to great lengths to emphasize his tech-savviness by inviting tech chief executives to Paris and even posing in his official portrait with two iPhones.

In the course of many months of research for my forthcoming book on screen addiction as a global health crisis, I've found that it's clear that there is no policy at home or at school which a determined teenager cannot circumvent. Conversations with parents in many countries show that the need for parents and their kids to stay in touch in these uncertain times -- especially in the US with frequent school shootings -- make all-school-day bans intolerable.

Indeed, in 2015, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio scrapped a decade-long ban on smartphones covering about 1.1 million students on the basis that it hindered "modern parenting."

California teacher and author Diana Graber, told me that students benefit by having accessible technology in the classroom. "As a teacher myself, I hate it when devices distract students in the classroom. But for older kids there are benefits to learning how to use technology wisely and mindfully. Devices are great research tools and can be used as calculators, documentation tools, for note-taking, to watch or make instructional videos."

Of course allowing technology into the classroom needs to be done wisely. There is no lack of teachers frustrated with the intrusion of the phones and their alerts and distracting features.

Research psychologist and university professor emeritus Larry Rosen says students' ability to listen to a lecture while eyeing an active smartphone screen is hardly as good as many students believe. This spring, I spent two separate mornings observing his students in a lecture hall at California State University Dominguez Hills; many had a laptop, smartphone or iPad with chats and other programs active while Rosen delivered a lecture on the dangers of multitasking. They couldn't peel themselves away to focus solely on the lecture.

Despite his observations, Rosen said he is adamantly against outright bans, such as the one about to start in France. He reasons that the fear of missing out phenomenon (FOMO) and dependence on their phone (nomophobia) places too much stress on students. "You're going to lose the kids' brains ... the proper way to do it is to give them periodic access during the day. Carve out times that are tech times.

That approach appears to be becoming more popular with teachers, who say they are no match for the seductive powers of smartphones and social media apps.

Joyce Moriana, a dramatic arts teacher at Bishop Allen Academy in Toronto, said the phones serve as a useful tool for creating characters, documenting plots and interpreting texts. And one Toronto physical education teacher told me she meets the kids halfway by providing a charging station during class so that the devices are out of sight and out of mind during teaching.

Whether in the US or England or Sweden, policies on smartphones in schools resemble a patchwork quilt, with school boards leaving it up to individual schools or schools leaving it up to individual teachers. Instead of banning smartphones outright, jurisdictions should introduce digital literacy courses that teach students how to navigate an "always on" world. The "cybercivics" digital literacy curriculum developed by Graber and her team is now used in more than 40 US states and internationally.

The impact of smartphones on young people even has its original developers concerned. "Steve Jobs used to say that the computer was like a bicycle for the mind. With that analogy, the smartphone (given its intimacy) is more like an automobile. It comes with tremendous power and autonomy. You have to have the discipline and understanding to know how to handle it," says Imran Chaudhri, the iPhone's original user-interface designer.

I like the approach adopted by the Greenwood School, a private facility in the shadow of Silicon Valley, where many tech executives send their kids: teach kids early on about the ethical and safety issues related to technology usage. The school even offers an organic chemistry class in the eighth grade where pupils are taught about the research-verified, harmful dopamine hit smartphones trigger in the brain.

While by now the harm unregulated smartphone use can do is well documented -- in fact Rosen showed me jaw-dropping research of how the brain literally hijacks the smartphone user when the urge surfaces to go for a social media hit -- banning them entirely throughout the school day is shortsighted and doomed to failure.

Let's focus on raising the younger generation into competent citizens able to cope as best they can in this era of digital distraction. And legislators and school boards should get their act together with uniform policies based on proven results.

Finally, if countries such as France are going to ban smartphones outright in schools, they should make sure to better prepare students for navigating the digital age -- just like a car on a highway.

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