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A group of teens in Santa Monica, Calif., on Nov. 30, 2015.JAKE MICHAELS/The New York Times

As the movement to ban cellphones in schools gains momentum, mental-health experts warn that these restrictions could cut children off from supports such as Kids Help Phone, which has seen more than double the number of young people seeking assistance compared with before the pandemic.

“They are calling us from the bathroom stall or from the principal’s office, or from their cellphone outside,” said Alisa Simon, executive vice-president, e-mental health transformation and chief youth officer of Kids Help Phone.

And they are calling the national support line in greater numbers than ever. Last year, Kids Help Phone had more than four million interactions – which include phone calls, texts and peer-to-peer counselling – with children in need of aid, up from 1.9 million in 2019.

The increase is an indication of how much young people, who can use their phones to seek mental-health support from a variety of hotlines and apps, are struggling.

Compared with 2019, discussions about substance use and abuse have increased nearly 100 per cent, Ms. Simon said. Other leading topics include grief (up 82 per cent) and self-harm and body image (up more than 50 per cent).

“Young people are coming to us about all the challenges of growing up, whether it is relationships, mental health, anxiety, suicide.”

Hold the phone: Cellphones have taken over our classrooms, and it’s been a disaster

Many students are making contact during school hours, according to data from the helpline, with 34 per cent of calls received between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. EST, Monday to Friday.

To say that kids in distress could reach out at some other time ignores the reality that many may not feel comfortable calling Kids Help Phone later in the day from home or another location, Ms. Simon says. “For some young people, school is a safe place.”

The charitable organization is trying to raise awareness of the issue as school boards across the country discuss implementing cellphone bans for students. A growing body of evidence shows that having the devices in classrooms can hinder learning.

Quebec has mandated that, as of January, cellphones are banned at schools, except when they can be used for educational purposes. Last month, the B.C. government announced that all schools in the province will have plans in place to restrict classroom phone use by September. Canada’s largest school board, the Toronto District School Board, has also started working on a policy.

Any such guidelines will surely make allowance for students who are in distress or otherwise need to use their phones to reach out for help, says Sachin Maharaj, an assistant professor of Educational Leadership, Policy and Program Evaluation at the University of Ottawa.

“With any kind of effective rule that’s in place, there’s obviously exceptions,” he says.

One complication is that while cellphones can help students experiencing mental distress, they can also be the cause of it.

“It’s also important to take a step back and reflect on what degree phones and the time spent on social media are contributing to the poor states of mental health that these students might be grappling with in the first place,” Prof. Maharaj said.

Schools that have banned or limited cellphones have seen an overall improvement in student mental health, he added.

“From some of the preliminary evidence that we do have, it does seem to have a positive effect, at least on the school climate and kids’ mental health when they’re at school.”

The TDSB will take all these issues into consideration as it works to develop its cellphone policy said Rachel Chernos Lin, the trustee who brought forward a motion last month to launch the process.

“We intend to do a very broad, wide-ranging consultation not just with experts and community members and organizations, but also about how students use their phones during the day,” she said. “And I suspect we will learn about some of the different ways a phone might be a lifeline.”

Any cellphone policy will have to take into account both the positive and negative effects of allowing the devices at schools, she said, adding that a complete ban is unlikely.

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