Human Problems

Erin Kernohan-Berning

5/15/20244 min read

people using phone while standing
people using phone while standing

Ontario has become the latest province in Canada to institute a ban on cellphones in the classroom effective in September 2024. On the Government of Ontario website, the news release announcing this ban (titled “Ontario Cracking Down on Cellphone Use and Banning Vaping in Schools” and subtitled “Province removing distractions from classrooms as part of its back-to-basics plan”) cites a 2023 UNESCO report as finding “a negative link between excessive cellphone use and student academic performance.” Interestingly, this negative link only forms a small part of the 547-page report Technology in education: On Whose Terms? The rest of the report paints a complex, nuanced picture of technology use in the classroom worldwide.

There are a number of reasons why curbing cellphone use in the classroom may be warranted. Again, from the UNESCO report which cites a number of studies and meta-analyses, having a pocket-sized portal to the entire internet that demands constant attention can be very distracting. Social media, which is also to be blocked on school networks come September, can have a negative impact on mental health and well being when not used in moderation. Steve Boots, TikTok-er, YouTuber, and teacher in Saskatchewan (which has not implemented such a ban yet), argues that school is really the only place where the social environment can be controlled.

However, the UNESCO report also includes a great deal of material about learner-centred technology use in the classroom – uses for accessibility, ensuring the equitable use of technology so lower income students aren’t left behind, considerations around learner privacy, tailoring technology in the classroom to local needs, emphasizing online safety, and clearly measuring learner outcomes to determine if technology use is truly an enhancement to learning. All of this is framed with the tension created as “the commercial sphere and the commons pull in different directions.”

We need to remember that consumer technology like cellphones, the internet, and social media, are profit-seeking endeavours, and those aims don’t always align with the public good. The central tenet of the report is that a learner-centred approach needs to drive educational decision making, with technology being implemented on those terms. Unfortunately, supporting the learners and teachers in this learner-centred approach won’t be achieved solely by a cellphone ban and blocking social media while at school. How to cultivate an engaging classroom environment is a distinctly human problem to solve. Non-technological solutions like manageable class sizes, updated curricula, and other supports for learners and teachers are just as important to meeting this goal.

We also need to look outside the classroom. If, as pop psychologists and various talking-heads like to pontificate, “kids these days” are indeed retreating into their cellphones, we need to ask what is society providing that’s any better? One aspect of this we need to examine is the decline of social infrastructure like the “third place.” A third place is somewhere that isn’t home or work (or school) where people can go to be a part of their community. These places can include parks, public libraries, green spaces, and other neighbourhood hangouts – anywhere where someone can, essentially, loiter freely and in relative safety.

While social media and the COVID-19 pandemic have been recently cited as responsible for the decline of the third place, they are only two nails in that coffin. Concerns about the decline of the third space have been expressed for decades, some citing post-WWII urban planning practices as being the start. Online communities have started to act as a kind of third place, however, as the commons and commercial move in different directions, they too aren’t without their own problems. Without easy, affordable, and safe access to third places (including the means to get to those places, like public transit), what’s the alternative?

We also need to stop looking at the online world as not being real life. Common Sense Media, in their many resources on cellphones and parenting, points out that kids aren’t just living in some imaginary land through their screens. They are connecting with friends, engaging with ideas, expressing their creativity, and learning through the perspectives of people different than them. Common Sense Media’s advice to parents does still include setting reasonable screen time limits, but also suggests having non-judgemental discussions about healthy cellphone and social media use, managing notifications, planning around online safety, and role modelling appropriate cellphone use.

We blame technology for human problems at our peril. This is not to say technology is blameless, or neutral. However, focusing solely on cellphones means that when it comes to solving very complex, very human issues, we’re always going to fall short. Librarian Jessamyn West once said about humans and technology that “hard things are hard.” We can’t expect hard things to have simple solutions, and we need to remember that humans deserve better than simple solutions.

Learn more

Ontario Cracking Down on Cellphone Use and Banning Vaping in Schools. 2024. Government of Ontario. Last accessed 2024/05/19.

Technology in Education: A Tool on Whose Terms? 2023. UNESCO. (PDF) Last accessed 2024/05/19.

The First Province Wide Cellphone Ban. 2024. Boots on the Ground. (TikTok) Last accessed 2024/05/19.

Cellphones in the Classroom. 2024. Unlearn16. (TikTok) Last accessed 2024/05/19.

The unfortunate, ongoing disappearance of 'third places'. 2024. Devika Rao. (The Week) Last accessed 2024/05/19.

Our Vanishing "Third Places". 1997. Ray Oldenburg. Planning Commissioners Journal Winter(5). (PlannersWeb - PDF) Last accessed 2024/05/19.

Cellphones and Devices: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers. 2024. Common Sense Media. Last accessed 2024/05/19.

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