New Brunswick government should ban smartphones in schools

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Appeared in the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, June 10, 2024
New Brunswick government should ban smartphones in schools

The Higgs government recently updated its policy restricting the use of smartphones in New Brunswick schools. Both common sense and research support a ban on phones in schools, which would reduce distractions and boost student performance.

Unfortunately, the updates don’t go far enough. students will need to store their phones in designated locations and phone use will be allowed for educational purposes, at the discretion of teachers.

While this may seem reasonable on the surface, there are numerous problems with this approach. Teacher discretion places the teacher in a difficult daily position of whether or not to allow students to engage with their highly addictive smartphones. According to U.S. social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, even the presence of phones in classrooms is a distracting temptation. Research shows that the closer the phone is to a student, the more distracting it is—even if it’s out of sight. Multiple studies, including a recent OECD report, showed this distraction measurably reduces student test scores.

What’s worse, it doesn’t have to be Johnny’s phone distracting Johnny. He can be equally distracted by Suzie’s phone two desks over, and the negative impact on his tests scores remains.

Again, New Brunswick’s revised policy stops short of a full ban on phones. But parents understand the problem. Recent polling suggests eight in 10 Canadian parents support a ban on phones in schools.

Parents have good reason to be concerned. From 2003 to 2022, according to PISA, math scores in New Brunswick have plummeted by 44 points (for context, PISA characterizes a 20-point drop as one year of lost learning). That same report found that students who were not distracted by a digital device scored 15 points higher their peers.

New Brunswick should learn from Ontario’s failed 2019 restrictions on smartphones in schools, which many teachers found almost impossible to enforce. The best smartphone policy is an actual ban. With few exceptions for student health needs (e.g. a blood sugar monitoring app), the Higgs government should make the ban as broad as possible. The same rules for all kids—phones locked away for the school day, to eliminate unnecessary distraction and improve student outcomes.

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