Ontario, Canada, is banning cell phones in classrooms during instructional time, starting next academic session – September 2019. Education Minister Lisa Thompson said “Ontario’s students need to be able to focus on their learning — not their cell phones. By banning cell phone use that distracts from learning, we are helping students to focus on acquiring the foundational skills they need, like reading, writing and math.”
The cell phone combined with internet technology has undoubtedly revolutionised our lives in myriad ways. Perhaps there is hardly any facet of life untouched by this revolution. Increasingly, it has become difficult to be active members of our present day societies without the use of cell phones. Like all technologies that have revolutionised human life and behaviour, the cell phone too has its pros and cons. Along with its all too obvious beneficial uses, the cell phones have a number of disruptive influences particularly on children.
Research indicates that in developed countries, a majority of middle school children own cell phones. While some children own their first cell phones when they are 11, nearly 50-60 % of all children own cell phones by the age of 13. In many cases it is the parents who are instigators of the first cell phone purchase. For many families the safety factor along with an enhanced sense of being connected is the major motivator for children being cell phone owners at a tender age. Children from higher income groups tend to own a cell phone earlier than those from lower income groups. Both parents and schools resort to various methods to regulate the use of cell phones to a greater or less degree.
In developing nations, the problem seems to be less acute as it is only a small percentage of well to do children who own cell phones in middle school and majority of children even in high schools still do not own cell phones. While parents of children who own cell phones attempt some sort of regulation on their use, most schools simply adopt a policy of banning these devices within school premises. Just as school uniforms do, such a policy serves as a great leveler between the haves and the have nots. So the dynamics in the developing world seem to be quite different from those in the developed world.
Is the ban proposal a case of resistance to change? During our schooldays too, many such scientific gadgets that enhanced learning were banned and the bans were later withdrawn. It commenced with the slide rule, then it was the calculator. During our children’s schooldays it was the turn of the scientific calculator to be followed by the laptop and then the notepad computers. While it has to be admitted that the revolutionising impact of the cell phone is far different from that of the slide rule or scientific calculator, particularly on the social and behavioural planes, the bottom line is that it is still a new technology that must be incorporated into the learning process sooner or later.
Cell phones help improve Digital literacy, a critical aspect of young students learning. It will also help them to effectively participate in the workforce. The cell phones provide a link between students and their parents, which has an important role to play in ensuring their safety. Evidence indicates parents want this type of access. Students with special needs, such as managing diabetes, and other medical and physiological conditions may be required to access various apps during school(s) hours. Rather than banning cell phones all out, we need to find ways to educate the students to use their phones effectively and efficiently. Banning cell phones will likely lead to underground and hidden use by teens. Rather than reducing cyber-bullying, banning cell phones altogether may show an increase in cyber-bullying.
We know about the 3Rs of learning – reading, writing, and arithmetic. We now need to include ‘research’, thus making it 4Rs. Schools need to educate both the teachers and students about safely negotiating the virtual environment. This means all schools need to develop policies around the use of cell phones during school hours.
A 2015 study by the London School of Economics investigated the impact of restricting Cell phone use in schools of four cities in England on student productivity. The results indicated an improvement in student performance of 6.41% in schools that have introduced a cell phone ban. These findings did not discount the possibility that cell phones could be a useful learning tool if their use is properly structured. The study found that cell phone bans have very different effects on different types of students. It improved outcomes for the low-achieving students (14.23%), and had no significant impact on high achievers. It showed that low-achieving students are more likely to be distracted by the presence of cell phones, while high achievers can focus in the classroom regardless of whether phones are present.
Another study was published in the Journal of Communication Education, Ohio University, based on impact of cell phone usage during class lecture, on student learning. Participants in three different study groups (control, low-distraction, and high- distraction) watched a video lecture, took notes on that lecture, and took two assessment tests after watching the lecture. Students who were not using their cell phones wrote down 62% more information in their notes, took more detailed notes, were able to recall more detailed information from the lecture, and scored better on a multiple choice test than those students who were actively using their cell phones.
Research published by the University of Chicago found that even if cell phones are turned off, turned face down or put away, their mere presence reduces people cognitive capacity. The paper called the phenomenon “cell phone induced brain drain”.
University of Illinois conducted a study that examined students’ cell phone and Internet use and its relationship to their mental health. The study assessed two forms of escapism amongst students: one that arises from boredom and one used as a way to avoid negative emotional situations.
What are the likely drawbacks of students using cell phones?
- It surely reduces face-to-face communication. Teenagers tend to message or text, avoiding a more challenging conversation.
- Smartphone apps, games and messages prompt dopamine release, creating addiction. Mere presence of a phone in the backpack can distract a student even though the student may not even be checking it.
- It tends to reduce working memory capacity, mental mathematical ability, logical analysis and fluid intelligence.
- It has surely reduced the students’ ability to cope with uncertainty and stress. In other words it reduces tolerance for ambiguity. Research shows being uncomfortable with uncertainty is associated with students feeling distracted and tense during difficult examinations or tests. The more uncomfortable young people are with uncertainty, the higher the number of co-occurring psychological problems they report experiencing. Smartphone use is associated with the current epidemic of anxiety and depression.
How can cell phones help in enhancing the learning process?
- Students tend to carryout research using their cell phones off-campus, later in life in their higher education, and in their professional and workplace learning.
- In case students want to investigate, collect data, receive personalised and immediate feedback, record media, create, compose, or communicate with peers, in and beyond the classroom, then using cell phones is ideal.
- Cell phones allow students to learn at a place, time and pace of their choosing, for example, on excursions, or when working on group projects or assignments with friends in more informal spaces like home, while travelling, etc.
Banning cell phones in schools is not the solution as it is important to educate children to live well in the era in which they are growing up. Students must be taught how to use technology to learn, communicate, and work with ideas. Modern technology provides new learning opportunities and the ability for students to develop skills they will need for future careers. The ability to copy what is written on the blackboard or what is dictated by the teacher into a note book is not a particularly useful skill that will help learning in the modern age nor is it what prospective employers are looking for.
An outright ban on cell phone use will hardly ever yield the results intended. Students will always find a way to smuggle it in, even if banned. That said, there is also an overarching need to perhaps severely regulate its use during classes.
Is there a need to regulate the minimum age for ownership of cell phones?
The rules formulated must be implementable at school level without hindering learning and development while at the same time minimise the disruptive effects on tender minds at the social and psychological plane.
Is it worthwhile to ban cell phones in schools? Will the ban be later overturned?