Last month, an Ontario high school teacher wrote an anonymous open letter decrying student-on-teacher violence. Outlining specific actions that the educator wanted the school board to take, one bullet point stood out: a complete ban on cellphones.
It’s a tall order, but it’s one that some schools across Canada are asking from their teen students in order to reduce bad behaviour, remove distractions and improve quality of life in the classroom.
Cellphones have a large impact on students’ mental health, says Sachin Maharaj, an assistant professor of educational leadership, policy and program evaluation at the University of Ottawa.
Schools aren’t just teaching content, Maharaj told CBC News, they’re also teaching “habits of mind,” including the ability to think deeply, focus for long periods of time and listen attentively and empathetically to others.
“I think that when students face this constant distraction from their phones, it reduces their ability to do those types of things,” he said.
Some schools see success with phone ban
From St. Thomas High School in Montreal, to Elk Island Public Schools in Sherwood Park, Alta., school administrators are implementing cellphone bans that require students to lock up their phones at the beginning of the day or keep them turned off during lessons.
Educators who are against a ban say phones can be included in teaching, but at least one school that tried that ended up banning the devices when those plans fell apart.
Other say phones are an important link between school and home — especially for students at risk of violence.
Ontario is the only province in Canada with an active ban on cellphones in the classroom. A similar proposal in Quebec was shot down last month, while others in Nova Scotia and B.C. met the same fate.
But a smattering of individual Canadian schools and school districts have taken it upon themselves to ban students from using their phones. Chatelech Secondary School on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast banned cellphones six months ago, and the outcome was remarkable, according to school counsellor Tulani Pierce.
“We are seeing improved mental health, we’re seeing decreased bullying, we’re seeing more engagement in class, we’re seeing more social interaction,” said Pierce in an interview last month.
“Kids are playing again instead of being on their phones and we’re seeing increased academic success.”
Phone a ‘lifeline’ during bullying
Not everyone agrees that banning cellphones would be helpful to students, let alone enforceable.
Tony Djukic, a Brampton, Ont., parent, told CBC News that his daughter, Karen, used her cellphone to communicate with him when other kids began targeting her at her former school. She was a new student at the time, and he said the administration’s efforts to contain the bullying fell short.
According to Djukic, Karen’s phone was a saving grace throughout a year of constant torment. It was both a faster path to physical safety and a tool for emotional support — she had the vice-principal’s permission to FaceTime her dad on bad days.
“There was very little that they could do to protect her, and having access to her cellphone was a sort of lifeline because she was able to message myself or mom, and we could then attend the school and extract her from situations where she felt unsafe,” Djukic said.
“Without her phone, she would have spent quite a few days in school frightened and worried without really being able to turn to anyone.”
While Ontario’s cellphone ban has been active since November 2019 — with an exception for devices used for learning purposes — Karen Djukic told CBC News that as far as she can tell, the ban is actually rarely enforced.
“Everyone who has a cellphone brings it and uses it whenever they want in class,” she said.
“Some teachers do have a bin where they can take the phones for the period and then give it back when we’re going to a new class,” but she said that if a student wants to request their phone to call their parents, the teacher will usually let them.
Her father questioned how school staff would be able to regulate the use of cellphones in class in addition to their other responsibilities.
“If they’re unable to enforce students not assaulting each other, students not being aggressive or disrespectful or even going as far as assaulting teachers … how are they going to enforce not having phones?”
Bans need to be comprehensive, expert says
Katie Yu, a 17-year-old student in Iqaluit, said cellphones are important for safety reasons — but they also have practical uses within the classroom that make them a necessary tool during the school day.
She uses her own for research, note taking and planning extracurriculars, but for the most part keeps it locked away during class. It should be up to students to regulate their own phone use, she said.
“Phones are inevitably a part of our daily lives,” she told CBC News. “So I think it’s best to just make the most of them and try to be responsible while using them in school.”
According to Maharaj, with the University of Ottawa, the mere presence of a phone in the classroom can be distracting for students wondering what they’re missing by not being on their device. Bans are especially tricky to enforce when adults are similarly dependent on their phones, he said.
That’s why a successful ban would have to be all-encompassing — one that applies that the entire school with an established set of rules that don’t differ between classrooms, he said.
While some students might be disciplined about not using phones while a teacher is speaking, Maharaj says students must also learn how to deal with lulls in their day without whipping out their phones to check social media or to play a game.
“A lot of creative thoughts come when we might think we’re bored or not actively engaged,” he said.
“As a society, we need to be able to carve out at least some space where teens can exist sort of free from all of that distraction, and I think schools should be one of those places.”
Connor Merson-Davies, a 15-year-old Saskatoon student, told CBC News that he uses his phone frequently during class. Sometimes, he says he’ll pull out his phone and before he knows it, an entire period has gone by. He said that he’d be in favour of a cellphone ban.
The Grade 10 student said his health science teacher built a wooden bin for students to drop their phones in for the duration of class. He observed more engagement and focus throughout the lesson from himself and his classmates.
“I know my teachers get quite irritated and just feel really disrespected [when] people’s phones are out and we’re … not concentrating and actually listening to what they’re saying.”