The French government just passed a law that bans cell phones on school grounds for children between the ages of 3 and 15-years-old. In typical French fashion, they’re being pretty high minded about the idea, announcing that the legislation is intended, as Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer memorably put it, “to make sure man is the master of the machine.” What does that actually mean? In short, that the smartphone ban is intended to push kids toward the library, the swingsets, and each other. Though it’s not clear this will work — and the jury is out on phone addiction, despite the French government’s implications otherwise — the policy move is smart. There is plenty of evidence that smartphones are bad for kids, particularly in the context of learning. One of the simplest, most effective ways for America’s Department of Education to help kids would be to follow France’s example.
The obvious reason for a smartphone ban in schools isn’t addiction, but distraction. Just mention the mobile game Fortnite to any teacher primary school teacher. The hot look of fury in his or her eyes should be proof enough that very little good comes from giving children access to the internet while school is in session. And if it’s not Fortnite, it’s texting, or Instagram, or Snapchat, or WhatsApp. How is social studies supposed to compete with social media? The three branches of government is nothing compared to gossip over an adolescent love triangle.
Do cell phones affect academic performance? Yes. But that’s not the only problem. Smartphone use is also correlated with childhood obesity. Research suggests that they can also lead to mental health problems, increasing incidents of depression and suicide. Studies have even linked smartphones to ADHD symptoms in teens.
But isn’t a school cell-phone ban simply the government treading on personal liberties? Well, maybe, but since when did Americans ever think children should be allowed to make their own decisions about their own health and safety? Children can’t drink because it’s dangerous. They can’t buy cigarettes because they are dangerous. Smartphones are also dangerous for children. And if you don’t think that’s the case look at the rise in distracted driving deaths. At the end of the day, curtailing the liberties of children is not contra to either the Constitution or Americans natural cultural impulses.
There’s also a fuzzier problem presented by phones. A child’s ability to behave rationally is often correlated with a child’s ability to manage emotion. Stimulus throws kids off quickly. That’s particularly true in adolescence when the prefrontal cortex, that area responsible for reason, has yet to develop strong connections to the areas of the brain that govern motivation and emotional processing. We’ve built a heap of laws based on that understanding, all in place to keep kids happy and healthy. The problem with phones is that they pipe in emotional stimuli. They make it hard to practice logical thought — and that’s largely the point of school. It’s the practice pitch for a lifetime of decision-making.
Interestingly, individual states have tried to tackle the issue. New York, for instance famously implemented a cell phone ban in schools. There was just one catch: The rules were enforced most strictly in schools with predominantly minority students, where tight security was in place. The parents of those students were also on the hook to pay for cell phone lockers. Victimizing poor kids was (and is) a bad look. A universal ban? Well, who can feel bad about that.
One single rule should be enforced in all public schools in the country. America should emulate France — though maybe skip the hyperbolic and hyper-literate policy announcement.
This idea is unlikely to get much traction under Betsy DeVos, the current head of the DOE, who prefers choice to solutions. That’s a shame because every kid would benefit. Maybe it’s a matter of perspective. Let’s not call it the French plan. Let’s call it the freedom from cell phones plan. That should work