Ontario parents, brace yourselves: Your sons and daughters are about to have their world rocked, thanks to a new provincial policy banning smartphones from elementary and high-school classrooms as of next fall. The policy isn’t official yet, but Education Minister Lisa Thompson confirmed Tuesday that it is coming. We can already hear the agonized moans of children contemplating their impending deprivation.
And yet, we happily cheer it on. It never made sense to give students access to such an addictive distraction during the precise time they are supposed to be learning the skills and knowledge taught in public schools.
Furthermore, as it becomes increasingly apparent that excessive smartphone use hurts students’ grades, and that they may also lead to depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, it is good to see Canada’s largest province make a loud statement about an important issue.
Those who see the policy as a neo-Luddite movement are missing the point. Yes, smartphones are incredibly useful devices that connect people, inform them and even keep them safe, and which are never more helpful than when used to look up things like “neo-Luddite movement.”
But, it is no longer possible to ignore their downsides, most tellingly because of news reports out of Silicon Valley last year to the effect that those who work for many of the world’s leading software companies and app makers – the very people who best know this technology – have begun strictly limiting their children’s screen time.
“On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine,” Chris Anderson, a former editor of Wired magazine, famously told The New York Times in October. The same article reported that Apple founder Steve Jobs wouldn’t let his young children near an iPad, and that Tim Cook, the company’s CEO, wouldn’t let his nephew join a social network.
As damning was a letter written last year by two major Apple shareholders, JANA Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, asking the company to take steps to help parents control their children’s screen time.
The letter cited numerous studies that found that the heavy use of electronic devices by children resulted in poorer performance in school, less sleep and a higher risk of depression and suicide. Other studies showed that children who took time away from their devices had more empathy and were better socialized than those who didn’t.
The letter also cited a joint study by Harvard University and the University of Alberta from 2015 that said teachers had noted a huge increase in the number of students with emotional and social challenges in the three to five years after smartphones became prevalent in classrooms.
“I see youth who used to go outside at lunch break and engage in physical activity and socialization. Today, many of our students sit all lunch hour and play on their personal devices," one teacher said.
And then there is the study from 2017, in which neurologists found a chemical imbalance in the brains of children who were addicted to their smartphones or to the internet. They found that the most addicted children suffered more from depression, anxiety, insomnia and impulsiveness.
A lot of adults who own a smartphone wrestle with why they find themselves compulsively reaching for their devices during a 15-second elevator ride, or go looking for it at home barely five minutes after they last looked at Twitter.
Parents who have their own smartphone issues may have a tough time imposing limits on their children’s usage, even if they’re aware of studies that point to the various risks of not doing so.
Which is why Ontario’s new policy is welcome. Even though a number of school boards in the province already have similar bans in place, the broader action sends a timely message about a legitimate public-health issue.
If implemented effectively – and that can be done if schools, with the help of parents, are strict enough about it – a generation of children will discover that smartphones have their time and place in a healthy life, but that they also have downsides and should be used sparingly.
The ban will be as hard on parents as on children. They will want to support their kids, which may mean coming to terms with their own addiction to personal devices. Call it a teachable moment, and a chance for everyone to get smarter about smartphones.