Students, brace yourselves. Parents and teachers, cue the music. Starting in September of the 2019-2020 school year, cell phones will be prohibited in all Ontario schools during instructional time, according to a statement issued by Ontario Education Minister Lisa Thompson on 12 March 2019. [1]

“Ontario’s students need to be able to focus on their learning, not their cellphones,” Thompson wrote. “By banning cellphone use that distracts from learning, we are helping students to focus on acquiring the foundational skills they need like reading, writing and math.”

Last year, the Progressive Conservative Government collected primary data regarding the sex education system by consulting parents and teachers, picking up information about cell phone use along the way. Results showed that 97% of the 35,000 respondents expressed interest in placing a restriction on cell phone use during school hours. [2] With the overwhelming demand for a regulation on cell phones in schools, it’s clear to see that a device once meant for calling has now evolved into an accessory with inconceivable power.

It will be up to individual school boards and schools themselves to enforce the ban. With their teacher’s permission, students will be permitted to strictly using cell phones for educational, medical, and special needs purposes.

Currently, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), along with the majority of Ontario school boards, have adopted the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy, where students are free to bring their own devices from home to school. These devices include smartphones, laptops, tablets, and personal digital assistants. Although students are allowed to bring their own devices to school, teachers have all the power to decide whether or not their students are able to use them during class time. “It’s managed by the teacher and it’s totally up to the teacher to use for educational purposes. The students will take their cue from the teacher in the room. The whole point to have [the devices] there is to help with the learning,” said Vice Principal Mrs. O’Flynn Wheeler, when asked about the current policy on cell phones in the TDSB.

I can’t recall another time Ontario parents and teachers agreed more unanimously on one single issue, and it seems ludicrous that the issue they did agree on is about the use of 6 by 3 inches of gorilla glass. So, what is the Progressive Conservative Government really trying to accomplish? Is the ban even a good idea?

Put Down the Phone

Pick up the Phone

The average student checks their phone 50 to 80 times a day [3]. According to a study done at the University of California, it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to a task after a person has been interrupted [4]. Hence, these impulsive 20 second phone checks are really costing students close to 24 minutes.  Multiplying this by 50 to 80 times a day can drastically impact a student’s marks, meaning more stress, catch-up time, and irritation for everyone.

When put into perspective, all the arguments that can be made as to why students need to use their phones in class are dismissive and insignificant. Phones are rarely a necessity for education, a large deterrent to productivity, and do not significantly increase the safety of students.

Although it is true  that phones can be used to take notes and search up questions, there are far more efficient ways to reach these results with other devices such as laptops and tablets. When deemed necessary and appropriate by teachers, these are typically provided by the school and only allow access to education-related applications to ensure that students are staying on task.

Efficiency-wise, laptops have been shown to be significantly faster and easier to type on for taking notes. However, handwritten notes help students retain more information and many teachers prefer these types of notes because there are fewer opportunities for distractions. [5]

Phones do not only distract students who use them, but also those around them. Focusing on the teacher becomes challenging when the bright lights and animated screens of students sitting in close proximity detracts the attention of those beside them.The problem for me is in classrooms when students feel the need to use them when they’re not supposed to, and then it adds another distraction to what’s already sometimes a challenging day in terms of the announcements, or assemblies, or students coming and going for various reasons, and it would be great just not to have the phone be another issue that we have to contend with,said Ms. Brennan, an English and history teacher at Marc Garneau CI.

Finding an Outlet

Initially invented as a tool for verbal communication between two people, almost none of the apps we use today remain true to the goals of the first cell phone. Over time, the cell phone has served as a convenient tool for instant messaging, allowing information to be passed more and more quickly. However, the increase of devices has failed to increase the safety of students significantly. Moreover, the disadvantages of cell phones to educational learning often outweigh the benefits.

The difference between having and not having any form of communication to officials outside of class is extremely large. However, with over 30 students in a class, 30 cell phones do not provide any additional benefit to a student’s safety. In the case that an emergency call is required to be made, 30 phone calls to the same number will not allow help to be reached any sooner.

Communication is allowed; not candy crush. The ban itself does not prohibit communication between parents and children either, only improper use of cell phones during instructional times. If students were really concerned about safety, calls can still be heard through backpacks and lunch bags.

We Need A Full-On Ban, Not A Restriction To Several Sites

Many school boards in Ontario have tried blocking certain social media and entertainment sites in the past, namely Snapchat, Instagram, and Netflix, which have accounted for more than 20% of student activity on the old networks. [6]

Yet even with a constraint, students were able to overcome this restriction with a virtual private network (VPN) or by using their own cellular data. Several boards, including the TDSB, have chosen to lift this restriction in the past year, which goes to show how ineffective it is to restrict student access to several resources. Instead, if schools are looking for better results, they should start considering banning cell phones in general, which would limit student access to all distractions by a far greater amount.

Killing Face-To-Face Interaction, Killing Social Skills

Arguably the most deadly impact of cell phones on children is their ability to kill conversation, leading to unhealthy emotional development, interference with attention-spans, while contributing to loneliness, anxiety, and increased risk of suicide. [7]

Track fields once filled with loud kids running around with soccer balls and frisbees, are now empty and engulfed in silence. Recesses, lunch breaks, and after school programs have now turned into “relief” periods where students give into their obsessions and turn to their devices.

Undeniably, kids are turning towards their phones instead of having healthy face-to-face conversations with their peers. The worst part of it all is when the time comes to have real social interactions, kids aren’t able to converse effectively and can’t help but pull out their phones to avoid the awkwardness.

Students aren’t developing the necessary social skills that they need when they enter the workforce or leave their parents’ households, and it’s evident that students must get off their bright screens immediately if they’re hoping for a bright future. Without face-to-face conversation, kids are vulnerable to poor mental health. Given that cell phone usage is at an all-time high in students, it’s no wonder why our mental health is at an all-time low. [8]

“The ban is relatively useless. There’s no way to enforce this unless teachers enforce it, and teachers right now are already trying to, but there’s no effect,” said Nelson Lee, a primary organizer of the student walkout at Marc Garneau CI. “This just goes to show how little [Doug Ford] knows about our education system and how everything works.”

The idea of a cell phone ban is not “new news.”  In fact, the TDSB used to have a ban on cell phones, but reversed it 4 years after it was initiated due to the fact that an out-and-out ban would require unimaginable levels of enforcement. [9] The term BYOD has been around for over fifteen years. Ontario school boards have been allowing students to bring phones to school for over 7 years and as students across the province grow more indignant and become more engulfed in the heavy conversation surrounding the cell phone ban, it’s imperative that we all take a step back and look at how the whole cell phone situation started in the first place.

According to a recent study done by the Pew Research Center, 95% of teens aged 14-17 have access to smartphones. [10] So do 69% of kids aged 11-13 in another study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation. [11] Parents are the ones paying for and equipping students with devices. They are the people who hold the power and to leave their kids without smartphones, yet, ironically, the majority of Ontario parents are complaining about the nonnecessity of cell phones in classrooms.

Safety: The Number You’ve Dialed Is Out of Service

It’s evident that the primary reason why so many students carry phones in class is for concerns regarding safety, and it’s something the PC Government is willing to sacrifice in its new education policy.

Cell phones are the best and most effective way for parents to get notified about their child because they have the advantage of immediate access. From a quick phone call, students are able to contact their parents in case of an emergency, and parents feel more secure at work or at home knowing that their child is only a text message away.

“Without communication, we wouldn’t be able to reach our parents,” said Venkat Kanagarajamuthaly, a student at Marc Garneau CI. “Especially here at MGCI, where we just had a security alert a couple weeks ago because someone was planning to shoot up the school, if something bad were to actually happen and we weren’t able to take our phones to school, we would all be in really big trouble.”

And he’s right; without phones, schools would be chaotic, students would be losing their minds, and parents would be experiencing more heart attacks. In fact, we don’t have to look far in search of threats and issues of safety that are endangering students all across the province.

Several months ago, Bishop Reding Catholic Secondary School in Milton, Ontario was locked down after police received reports that a student was being chased by a group of armed people. Last month, students at York Memorial Collegiate Institute in North York, Ontario experienced a lock-down because a stabbing took place right outside the school.

It’s clear that schools aren’t as safe as they may have been in the past. At the end of the day, isn’t the number one priority of schools to keep students safe? By banning cell phones in classrooms, we’re not helping to improve the safety and security of our children. Instead, we’re taking away an integral safety net that has proven to be vital and indispensable for survival during times of emergency.

Legitimate Educational Purposes

Many students use their phones in class to search up a topic or a question pertaining to the lesson being taught because of its convenience and its ability to access millions of databases. For instance, if I was learning about the Cold War in history class and the Suez Crisis pops up, I would be able to read into the details of the event through reliable and in-depth online resources like The Canadian Encyclopedia, all which can be accessed through a phone.

“Half the time, teachers don’t know a lot about other stuff they’re teaching and we don’t expect them to know everything,” said Nelson Lee. “The internet is very beneficial in that way, and without cell phones, most students cannot access great resources like the internet.”

In a study done by Survata, an independent research firm, 75% of students believe using personal devices in class has improved their ability to learn and retain information. 58% use their phones to take pictures of key diagrams on lecture slides, 41% use Google to help answer in-class questions, and 39% use their phones to access digital textbooks. [12]

“Sometimes you pull out your phone, you look at something, and oh, it triggers a thought, and you start writing again,” said Vethusan Kale, a student at Marc Garneau CI.

Although cell phones are often perceived negatively, they genuinely help validate any opinions or ideas students have when used correctly. The ban would be unfair to students who are currently benefiting from cell phones and are using them accordingly. Students who excel and build up from their use of technology should not suffer at the expense of those who cannot demonstrate self regulation.

Ontario Schools Are Broke

Let’s face it: schools are not equal in wealth and they never will be. Wealthier schools such as North Toronto and Northern hold massive computer labs and libraries that are always available to students, while students in disadvantaged communities seldom get access to these valuable resources because it’s practically impossible to share the small number of resources the school holds. Cell phones are an excellent substitute for these computer labs since they cost the school absolutely no money and can be used in a variety of classes ranging from art to advanced functions to political science.

Ford’s Phone-y Ban

To conclude, many Ontario teachers, including Mr. Warden, a french teacher at Marc Garneau CI, have already banned cell phones in their individual classrooms for several years. For them, the proposed ban will certainly not change anything in their classrooms. Mr. Warden noted, Is a ban on cellphones in class necessary? Yes, because cell phones are addictive, but no, because the teacher already runs the show in the class, and the teacher will decide when the kids can and can’t use their phones.” The debate over whether cell phones should be allowed in classrooms is comparable to the age-old debate about pineapples on pizza: It’s completely pointless, and at the end of the day, the one eating the pizza should be able to decide what they want on it. Policies on cell phone use should be left to individual teachers, because they are the ones “eating the pizza.” They know what works best in their classrooms, and they don’t need politicians telling them what should go on their pizza.

Regardless of which side you believe to be right, the fact that we’re giving this situation any light at all is unnecessary, since there isn’t anything significantly flawed with current policies on cell phones in classrooms. The PC Party’s cell phone ban is merely a misunderstanding by both politicians and students. The word “ban” is attached to many unfavourable connotations and it seems like we’re all overreacting to this one word,  either treating it as our saviour (for adults) or as DEFCON-1 (for students) without really understanding what the hell the PC government is trying to achieve. As a matter of fact, what they’re desperately trying to achieve has already been achieved in Ontario classrooms.

Teachers already have full authority in deciding the use of phones in class and banning these devices will not help students at all in the long-run. Students know how to use their technology to assist them in learning more effectively. They know they aren’t supposed to be scrolling through Facebook or Instagram during their science or math classes and they are well aware of how their phones are damaging their academic and social lives. The problem here is not the phone, but the self-regulation of students. And unfortunately, self-regulation is not a skill learned through the classes being taught at school.

This futile proposal, doubtlessly meant to be a distraction from the Premier’s other controversial changes that are soon to come to Ontario, such as cuts to the autism programs and public health, has been the cause of thousands of memes on social media, numerous pressing news headlines around our province, with no solid or substantial boundaries as to what limits will be set in place. The proposed change is no different from what is currently happening in schools across our province, and will be nearly impossible to strictly enforce.

So, to all the outraged and passionate students, parents, and teachers: you’re all overreacting to a proposed policy that will change absolutely nothing. If you have any further concerns, please leave your name, telephone number, and a short message after the beep, and we’ll be sure the PC Government will get back to you as soon as they’ve realized just how “phone-y” their cell phone ban really is.

For now, let’s continue to leave it up to the teachers to make the right call.