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Will the French Ban on Mobile Phones in Schools Work?

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August 22, 2018 12:01 EDT

With the onslaught of technological advancements and the gradual change in human behavior as a consequence, will banning mobile devices stand the test of time?

In a country where 9 out of 10 students between the ages of 12 and 17 have cellphones, France has banned the use of mobile phones in primary and junior schools from the next academic year. The ban is applicable to students and teachers alike. France’s move has drawn the attention of the world and has sparked a debate on the pros and cons of such measures.

Other places around the world have already experimented with the approach. New York public schools had banned cellphones on campus in 2005. Reversing the controversial policy, the 10-year ban was lifted in 2015, citing better communication with parents, especially during emergencies, as one of the reasons for the shift in policy.

According to GSMA Intelligence, there will be a staggering 5.7 billion unique cellphone users by 2020 — that’s nearly two-thirds of the world’s population. It has taken barely half a century to reach this remarkable milestone in the evolution of mobile phones. The first handheld mobile device was produced by Motorola researcher Martin Cooper in 1973. As with any new popular technology, mobile communications evolved over the next few decades, with each generation eclipsing the capabilities of the previous one.

The first generation of 1G analogue cellular network of the 1980s gave way to 2G digital cellular technology in 1990s. By the turn of the century, there were about 300 million using 3G technology that featured mobile broadband access. Today, nearly 50% of the cell phone users own a smartphone that packs in a full-fledged computer in the tiny handheld device.

The kids who are no longer permitted to use cellphones during school hours grew up toying with a mobile device even before they could speak properly. In affluent and middle-class households, toddlers barely able to grip things with their tiny hands are given a smartphone with a kid-friendly app to keep them amused and occupied, allowing their parents to catch a few moments for themselves. Swiping and navigating various apps in the smartphone is second nature to this new generation.

Will Restricting Access Work?

The Environmental Health Trust, a nonprofit that performs research on controllable environmental health hazards, has produced a report on how different countries across the globe have tackled the problem of mobile phone usage in schools. Countries have banned cellphones in schools not on account of radiation and other environmental issues, but rather because of the distractions the devices cause to academic pursuits. One study shows that test scores have improved in schools where cellphones were banned, especially among students who are usually underachieving.

With the onslaught of technological advancements, and the gradual change in human behavior as a consequence, it would be worthwhile to examine if approaches like banning mobile devices will stand the test of time.

We all remember the recent past when using a mobile phone on an aircraft was banned. Every electronic device had to be powered off once the airplane doors were closed and could be used only after passengers had disembarked. Today, with better understanding of the issues around the interference of cellphones in air traffic control communications, every airline permits the use of the mobile phone on the tarmac, during taxing and right after touchdown.

Technological advancements go further to provide passengers the option of unfettered connectivity at 35,000 feet in the air. While a better understanding of the communication interference of mobile devices in air traffic control helped in this shift, human desire to be constantly connected to the internet played more than a significant role in ushering these changes.

If adults cannot keep their hands off their smartphones because of their compulsive need to be connected all the time, there is little chance that legal restrictions on the use of mobile phones inside schools will hold over time. Not only were these children breastfed this technology, teachers — who were included in France’s ban — have publicly derided their inclusion in the ban. The debate on the pros and cons of the usage of mobile phones in schools weighs in the direction of education rather than prohibition.

The sentiment was echoed by a high school student in America who argued that any technological advance will come with its own undesirable side effects, and that it is the responsibility of educators to successfully reach out to youngsters and mould their behavior appropriately rather than give up on them and ban the use of mobile phones altogether. The youngster also suggested that motivated students will find creative ways to circumvent the ban, while those who actually use phones responsibly will be the ones who will face the effects of the ban.

Technology and Politics to the Rescue

Technological advancement is inexorably making humankind more and more reliant on it. These advancements are usually accompanied by certain undesirable capabilities. Strengthening its vicious grip on humanity, solutions to such side effects are also found in the form of more help from technology. When hands-on cellphone usage in cars while driving was banned, technology came to the rescue in the form of Bluetooth-enabled earphones and hands-free tools.

Today, while Bluetooth still provides the connectivity between a car and the mobile device located within it, voice recognition has obviated the need for earphones. Alexa, Siri and Google are already getting integrated in our life at the very core. The next generation of kids may very well grow up without ever having to use hands as an input mechanism with mobile devices. They will, in all likelihood, use voice recognition as the primary technology to accomplish this interaction.

Just as New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio fulfilled his campaign promise to lift the cellphone ban in public schools in 2015, French President Emmanuel Macron fulfilled his own promise to enforce a ban on mobile phones in primary and middle schools this year. Both politicians took advantage of the existing sentiments, turning it to their own advantage during the election campaign. No matter how scientific or compelling the argument to institute a change, in the end it is the prevailing sentiment of the people that will eventually win.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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