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Close up of schoolgirl typing text message on cell phone at the desk in the classroom.

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Every so often, I’m invited to a school to talk about journalism. It’s usually at a college or university, but last month, I spoke at the High School Journalism Conference in Toronto. No offence to the classrooms full of twentysomethings that I’ve bored in the past, but the teenagers’ energy and engagement was so intense it was startling. I mentioned it later to an organizer, who speculated that high schoolers still face consequences if they don’t put down their phones and pay attention.

That’s probably not the entire reason, but it is true that older students are often looking at their screens instead of me. It’s also true that reams of studies have shown that excessive cellphone use can interrupt learning and harm academic performance. So on the face of it, the classroom cellphone ban instituted by the Ontario government makes a lot of sense.

Look a little deeper, though, and things get murkier. Firstly, the ban isn’t really a ban at all. Students can still use phones for educational, health or medical purposes, which was already many schools’ stated or de facto policy. And with 10,000 teaching jobs slated to be eliminated over the next five years, larger classes and more work will reduce teachers’ ability to limit phone use anyway.

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Meanwhile, the Progressive Conservatives are making online high-school classes mandatory, even though they carry many of the same risks as cellphones for developing adolescent brains. Plus, both the elementary and secondary teachers’ unions are poised to strike, meaning children may lose out on schooling entirely. While this week’s pseudo-ban on classroom cellphone use may do some good, it won’t make up for the many ways the provincial government keeps mucking up the education file.

Plenty of research suggests that overuse of cellphones can have a negative effect on adolescents’ academic performance. One 2015 study on texting published by the American Psychological Association said texting in class lessened the level of detail in students’ notes, as well as their ability to recall details of the day’s lessons.

Girls, especially, tended to be preoccupied by social interactions over text. Along with interfering with school work, it drove up their levels of anxiety and mental distress.

Fractured attention spans are an obvious risk: The same study found that students were distracted by their phones as often as every six minutes. But a similar problem was found in a 2019 study of online learning out of Kent State University. Attempts to multitask were greater in online courses than face-to-face classrooms, with a noted negative effect on understanding, recall and retention.

The Kent paper focused on college students, which makes Ontario’s decision to have all high-school students take four courses online particularly ill-advised. Researchers found that younger students were more likely to have their attention drift when being taught by a computer, instead of a teacher.

Five per cent of Ontario high-school students currently take an online course, most often high achievers who want to get another credit quickly. That number will spike to 95 per cent when the new program begins next year, meaning even those not suited to e-learning will have to try it anyway. This is a particular disadvantage to boys, who are more likely than girls to be weak readers. Not to mention that the government still hasn’t explained how students who don’t have easy access to high speed internet are supposed to complete these courses.

That’s the long-term view – in the short term, the province keeps presenting families with potential education chaos. Having barely escaped a strike by education support workers last month, the PCs are now standing off with teachers. Ontario’s elementary teachers just voted 98 per cent in favour of strike action that could begin in about two weeks. High-school teachers haven’t had a strike vote yet, but their union is just as displeased in its negotiations with the province. Both groups want changes to the province’s proposed increased class sizes, below-inflation wage increase and reduced per-student funding.

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So sure, restricting cellphone use in classrooms is a great idea. It’s not a substitute, though, for a genuine commitment to quality education for Ontario’s public school students.

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