Ontario government’s smartphone restrictions in schools don’t go nearly far enough

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, May 9, 2024
Ontario government’s smartphone restrictions in schools don’t go nearly far enough

According to a recent announcement by the Ford government, beginning next schoolyear new restrictions will govern the use of smartphones in Ontario schools. Unfortunately, these restrictions don’t go nearly far enough.

The government already restricted the use of smartphones in classrooms in 2019, but left the specifics up to school boards. Teachers said these policies were almost impossible to enforce, leaving the “bans” ultimately ineffective. The new policy, which will apply provincewide, faces the same enforcement issues—and other problems.

For starters, students in kindergarten to Grade 6 must keep their phones on silent and out of sight during school hours. But as many experts have noted, including American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his recent work advocating smartphone bans in schools (and during childhood), even the simple presence of a smartphone reduces one’s cognitive abilities. In other words, a phone in a child’s pocket does no one any favours.

The new policy will also allow smartphones in Grades 7-12 if permitted by the teacher, which is basically how things are right now. And any experienced teacher will tell you it’s older students, not younger students, who are most likely to be glued to their phones. By allowing older students to use their phones in class with their teacher’s permission, the Ford government has given up any real attempt to implement a provincewide approach. Clearly, if the government was serious about banning smartphones in schools, it would entertain no exceptions.

Of course, a provincewide ban is long overdue. There’s mounting evidence that smartphones are harmful to students. For example, according to the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, 80 per cent of Canadian students feel anxious if their phones are not with them during math instruction—exceeding the average of 65 per cent among high-income OECD countries including the United States and the United Kingdom. Moreover, about six in 10 students in the OECD said they were distracted by the digital devices of other students in math class.

Most importantly, the PISA research strongly connected digital distraction in math class—including by other students’ smartphones—to significantly reduced scores on math tests. Smartphones aren’t making kids smarter.

Unsurprisingly, parents also realize that smartphones are an immense distraction in classrooms (even if some parents want to contact their children during the school day, which is a roadblock in implementing these bans). According to a January 2024 Narrative Research poll, eight in 10 parents in Canada supported banning smartphones in government public schools to reduce distractions in the classroom.

So what would a real ban look like?

The Ford government doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel to ban digital devices during school hours. If you’ve ever been to a concert or comedy show that’s being recorded for wider publication a few months later, you’ve likely had to put your smartphone into a sealed pouch so you couldn’t record and share the performance, or at least been instructed not to use your phone until the end of the show.

Happily, you probably survived, and without buzzing distractions probably enjoyed the show a lot more.

Schools can easily implement the same policies, requiring students to seal their phones in pouches, which teachers can keep until the end of the day when they will unlock them and send the kids on their merry way. Some independent schools already employ these policies, and there’s no reason students in government public schools shouldn’t enjoy the same distraction-free learning environment.

If the Ford government actually wants to crack down on smartphone use in schools, it should implement a ban that actually works.

Subscribe to the Fraser Institute

Get the latest news from the Fraser Institute on the latest research studies, news and events.