“The time has come to ban cellphones in the classroom”. Wait, wait, but “A blanket ban on cellphones in class would not be smart”. These were the headlines of two op-eds published in Canadian daily newspapers in early September. This debate has already reached an international scale: Since 2012 most teenagers in rich countries have had access to smartphones.
In Kerry, Ireland, one school has restricted children’s use of smartphones and social media, not only in school but also outside school hours, with the full support of parents. The Scottish Parliament has considered putting limits on student’s cellphone use in schools. In July 2018 the French Government banned all students under the age of 15 from using smartphones during school hours. The New South Wales Department of Education in Australia is now carrying out a review into non-educational use of mobile devices in schools to see if they should follow France’s lead.
Why are these questions being asked now? One reason is this: smartphones are everywhere. According to the Pew Research Center, 95% of teens in the U.S. have access to a smartphone, and half of them say they are online, practically all the time, including at nights. The Center for Media and Child Health at Harvard Medical School estimates that teens spend more than nine hours every day consuming media through their mobile devices. Half of American teenagers say they are “addicted” to their smartphones.
Second, many teachers and parents believe that smartphones disturb children and negatively affect their learning in school. In the Canadian province of Alberta, for example, three out of four teachers believe that students’ ability to focus on educational tasks has decreased during the past five years. Finland’s slippage in international student assessments has happened at the same time with teenagers’ increased screen time. Similar trends of stagnated or declining student achievement have been noted in many developed nations recently.
Thirdly, children’s rapidly declining mental health has made many parents and teachers to wonder what is going on in their lives. If you have any doubts that these concerns couldn’t be real, consider these alarming findings:
San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge found that the number of American teenagers who feel joyless or useless jumped 33 percent between 2010 and 2015. During that same period there was also a 50 percent increase in depressive symptoms among teens;
Australian psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg stated that in Australia 1 of 7 primary school and 1 of 4 secondary school children suffer mental health issues;
The National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland estimates that 20 to 25 percent of youth suffer mental health problems in 2017, reaching an all-time high;
An Alberta Teachers Association’s survey showed that 85 to 90 percent of teachers think that the number of children with emotional, social and behavioral problems in their schools has increased during the past 5 years;
Evidence from around the world suggests that children don’t sleep enough, they don’t eat enough healthy food, and they don’t have enough daily outdoor physical activity.
So, if smartphones are at least partly behind these alarming developments that put children’s health at risk and disturbs their learning, should they be altogether banned in schools?
Not so fast, some would say. Although many researchers believe that children’s rapidly growing use of smartphones may contribute to declining mental health and inability to learn well in school, it is difficult to prove that “screen time” alone is the main cause. Blanket bans are rarely the most effective ways to fixing human behavioral problems. Children were born in a world where technology and digital gadgets were already a normal part of life. From an educational perspective, banning smartphones in school would be an easy solution but not necessarily a the smartest one.
Instead, we should teach children to live safe, responsible and healthy lives with and without their smartphones and other mobile devices. Education can be a powerful tool to teach children self- control and how to live better lives. But schools can’t do this alone, “it takes a village to raise a child”, as the old African adage goes.
Here is how to get started:
1. Sleep more
More children than ever before suffer from insufficient daily sleep. According to most pediatricians school-aged children (6 to 13 years old) need 9 to 11 hours sleep every day and teenagers should sleep 8 to 10 hours every night to function best. However, most teens do not get that much sleep. An American study recently found that in 2015 one quarter of American adolescents slept less than seven hours a night. The National Sleep Foundation says that only 15% of teens sleep at least 8.5 hours a night during school week. It is common among teens to sleep with their smartphone and check what has happened during the night before saying “Good morning” to their parents.
Solution: Teach children about the importance of sleep. Work with parents to agree the rules that shut mobile devices down two hours before bedtime and keep them away from bedrooms. Assign children an hour extra sleep as homework. Keep log about how children sleep and monitor its effects on wellbeing.
2. Play more outside
Children play less than ever before. The American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that because parents spend less time with their children outdoors, children are more engaged with technology, and schools expects students to do more and faster, children’s opportunities to play have decreased. In many schools, children don’t play anymore. In 2016 just 13 U.S. states had legislation that mandates recess to all children during school days. Research William Doyle and I used in writing “Let the Children Play”made us conclude that play is a dying human activity in many education systems around the world.
Solution: Make 15-minute hourly recess a basic right for all children in school. Use schoolyard and nature for recess, play and physical activity as often as possible. Teach parents about the power of free outdoor play and encourage them to spend more time with their children outdoors. Assign homework that includes playing with one another or with parents. Keep a record of how more play and physical activity affects children’s learning and wellbeing.
3. Spend less time with digital media
Children spend much more time daily with digital devices than before. Many of them sleep less than they watch digital screens. Children often learn these habits from their parents. A recent UK study found that about 51% of infants 6- to 11-months-old use a touch screen daily. According to the Common Sense Media 2015 survey teenagers’ average daily media use excluding time spent for school or for homework in the U.S. in 2015 was nearly 9 hours.
Solution: Teach children responsible and safe use of technology. Talk about technology with children and help them to find the best ways to limit smartphone use in school and at home. As a parent or teacher, be a role model of regular media diets to children and keep smartphones away when they are not needed. Make technology a tool, not a treat for children in school and at home.
4. Read more books
Children read less than before, and so do adults. Half of children in America today love or like reading books for fun, compared to 60 percent in 2010. International reading literacy survey PIRLS 2016 indicated a decline in the recreational reading among Finnish children: only 35 percent of 4th graders read for pleasure. Boys read so little in Finland that one of eight is functionally illiterate.
Solution: Make reading a habit. Advice parents to buy books and read them with their children. Read regularly and discuss what you read in school and at home. Let children choose what they want to read. Visit libraries and bookstores and meet with book authors. Read real books (or audio books) more than ebooks.
5. Write letters to ones you love
Children write less and worse than before. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that three of four both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing. Snapchat cyber slang uses shortcuts, alternative words, and symbols to convey thoughts in an electronic communication and writing. Ask any high school teacher or college professor for more evidence for the state of teenagers’ writing skills.
Solution: Make writing a habit in school. Coach students in good writing and give them regular feedback. Use pen and paper alongside with electronic tools. Write a letter by hand to your grandmother or someone you love once a week.
The key to success in life is self-control. Longitudinal research studies, like the Dunedin Study in New Zealand, have shown that learned self-control in childhood is the best predictor of success in adulthood. The main purpose of the five steps above is to help children to regulate their own behaviors and concentrate on what. Thoughtful reading and productive writing require ability to focus, concentrate and pay attention to these activities long enough.
Sufficient daily sleep and more outdoor play help children to do better. They could therefore be keys to improving student learning and wellbeing in school more than haphazard education policies and innovation that have been common mandates in schools around the world.
Originally published in Washington Post on 21 September 2018