Today’s child is bewildered when he enters the 19th century environment that still characterizes the educational establishment where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patterns subjects, and schedules.Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage
My eldest child just had their first day of grade 10 and informed us that phones are banned this year, outright1.
On the face of it, I can’t help but feel like these rules are the result of an outdated system trying to reign in progress, flailing for relevance. Administrators overreacting to a technology their outdated system can’t cope with. Those phone hold the keys to more information than could ever be taught in school.
IMHO allowing most kids to keep their phones in most circumstances2 is perfectly reasonable. I might even consider it a right.
The primary argument that parents often cite in Facebook groups, etc when demanding their kids be allowed access to their phones in school is safety.
Parents want to be able to message their children to check up on them or to make sure that they’re where they are supposed to be with apps like Find My.
In the 21st century, it’s entirely normal for parents and children to be in constant communicate — it’s almost like having a telepathic superpower. Removing this ability can be unsettling.
The counter argument from school administration is usually that any genuine3 emergency or concern can always be routed through the school office, which is a valid point. However…
Safety From The School
A more compelling safety argument is that of students’ safety from the school itself, when they are being harmed by or feel unsafe at school.
Phones are powerful, impartial data recording devices. Consider the numerous instances where cell phone videos exposed misconduct by teachers or documented unruly student behaviour. Without documentation it’s a kid’s word against and adult in a position of authority.
Despite the inspirational quotes adorning school walls and the well-intentioned staff we hope for, the system generally resists believing students who report issues against it.
The level of accountability enabled by allowing students to keep their phones with them at all times is a very compelling argument in favour of this practice.
The current generation has grown up with screens in their hands from birth. We can debate whether this is good or bad for society4 but at this point in time it’s simply a matter of fact. Kids are innate multitaskers.
This reality means that many kids are totally capable of rapidly switching contexts. They can legitimately be engaged with a group chat on their phone and a classroom lecture during the same time-frame.
Multitasking at Work
If the goal of school is to prepare kids for the workforce, then schools need to grapple with the fact that many employers allow their employees to take their phones to work.
Why not take the opportunity to teach kids some skills that will come in handy in the workforce and be better humans.
Maybe something like a “healthy online behaviour” class, as part of the health curriculum?
It could cover things like:
- How to avoid doom-scrolling yourself into oblivion.
- Using focus modes to avoid distraction during crunch time.
- How to report non-consensual intimate image distribution.5
- How to not feed the trolls.
- How to not be a troll aka how to express yourself in short text.
…that sort of thing.
Obviously, a global communication device enables, amplifies and accelerates the harm children cause each other. I’ve heard some horror stories about tiktok adjacent cyberbullying. And it would be ridiculous to suggest that a child has any right to continue to this sort of activity during class time.
But most kids are good, most of the time.
When a school proactively bans phones for everyone, the school is communicating that it believes most kids are bad, most of the time. And I strongly believe that is the wrong message to be sending.
Should be Allowed by Default
In 2023, the little always on global communication device has become an extension of our minds; like another limb or a super power.
We use it to learn things more efficiently than we could ever learn anything in a classroom.
We can reach out to friends across the world for moral support when we’re in need.
We can record and report wrongdoing instantaneously and definitively.
We can hear bad news directly from our parents, without a layer of bureaucracy.
We can be reassured that our children are in fact on the bus on their way home, even though it’s 4:30 and it’s getting dark with a blizzard setting in.
A globally connected supercomputer in your pocket is an immense good. Banning them is wrong.
That said, a school should be a safe space for learning and collaborating. If students are using their phones to spread harm, definitely ban them from using it on school grounds. I wouldn’t expect any less.
And obviously, there are probably some other carve outs for disruptive or extremely distracting behaviour, that — while not harmful — should probably result in temporary phone bans. Things like playing immersive video games, creating complex social content, listening to music, etc.
But by default, students should be allowed to take their phones to class.
- Though in a later conversation it sounded like teachers may still have the ability to suspend this rule on a class-by-class basis. ↩︎
- Except tests, you probably don’t want kids looking up answers to tests. Or maybe you do? Testing itself is a largely outdated concept anyways. ↩︎
- “House is on fire,” or “Dad was rushed to the hospital” kinda thing. ↩︎
- After years and years of FUD, the current thinking seems to be leaning towards “it’s probably fine” (see Screen Time Is Not As Dangerous As You Think—And It May Help Your Child Make Friends). ↩︎
- The Canadian Centre for Child Protection will actively help remove images online, see needhelpnow.ca. ↩︎