quebec cellphone ban school classrooms

Quebec cellphone ban in classrooms ‘like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube’

We spoke with parents and teachers about the need for fewer distractions for students in class and whether the ban will solve attention-span issues or create new problems. 

If you’re a public student in Quebec and want to use your cellphone in class, you’re currently out of luck. As of Dec. 31, 2023, a province-wide cellphone ban prevents elementary and high-school students from accessing devices during school hours. The directive, which also applies to vocational training centres, was announced last August by Quebec Education Minister Bernard Drainville, and starts this week as students return to school from the holiday break. The new policy aims to improve students’ concentration in class and promote, says the government, an environment more conducive to teaching. 

Private schools are exempt from the ban. Exceptions will also be made when phones are required for pedagogical purposes by the teacher, because of a student’s medical condition or for the special needs of a disabled student or a student with learning disabilities.

Many Quebec schools already had some variation of cellphone bans in their classrooms, but the goal of this new policy is to make it universal across the province. The decision has been met with mixed reactions. While many parents and teachers understand the need for fewer distractions in class, others question how this ban will be enforced, or whether it will in fact solve attention-span issues. 

Removing the distractions

Peggy O’Neill, a Grade 5 arts teacher in Deux-Montagnes, says the high school she works at already has a cellphone ban, with students expected to leave their phones in cases while entering the classroom — something she says not all students do. 

While she’s not fervently in defence of the ban, O’Neill does admit that enforcing one will probably make her life a little easier and students less distracted. 

“Students often use their cellphones to find images for our art class, so they can certainly be useful, but they’re often also quite a disturbance. Many of our students also have part-time jobs and they often get messages from their bosses about shift work. It can be distracting.”

Merrill Matthews, the father of a 14-year-old teen girl, says he’s very much in support of a cellphone ban. “Youth these days are very consumed with content on their phones,” he says. “I can see how it takes up a huge portion of their daily lives. So, schools basically putting a big stop sign for students to use their phones during class is not a bad thing, in my opinion. It gives everyone a break from the endless messaging being received.” 

Cellphone bans not unique to Quebec

There’s no question that cellphones can be incredibly distracting. I see what cellphones do to adults daily. Most people seem to be incapable of taking an elevator to the 10th floor or waiting for a few brief moments in a supermarket line without pulling out their phones to scroll on social media. And by people, I mean me. We all do it. And I do sometimes feel uncomfortable about the pull cellphones have. I can only imagine what it must do to preteens and teens who have far less self control and discipline than adults do.

Quebec isn’t implementing anything new. There’s been a global crackdown of cellphones in school classrooms over the past few years. In 2018, France banned cellphone use on school grounds for students under the age of 15. The province of Ontario decided to do the same in 2019. The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) used to have a cellphone ban but then reversed it after four years to let teachers dictate what works best for their classrooms, saying it was next to impossible to enforce the ban properly. Now, it’s being reassessed again. 

In 2021, China started banning cellphones in schoolrooms in order to “protect young people’s eyesight, improve their concentration and prevent internet addiction.” The state of Florida implemented a ban last year. Italy, as well. Quebec is now instructing school boards to both enforce the ban and to come up with the penalties for those who don’t comply.

A recent New York Times article points to a report from the United Nations’ educational and cultural agency that reveals nearly one in four countries now have laws or policies banning or restricting student cellphone use in schools.

Global pandemic negatively affected students

Bernard Drainville
Quebec Education Minister Bernard Drainville

There are good reasons to consider cellphone bans. Students aren’t doing that well in school. Teachers I have spoken to tell me many students can’t focus, aren’t disciplined and are behind in school. A three-year pandemic further weakened education systems that were already vulnerable, due to staff shortages.

A study for the EdCan Network, a bilingual organization that connects education professionals and researchers from kindergarten to Grade 12 across Canada, analyzed Quebec elementary and secondary school teachers’ perceptions of the effects of COVID-19 on their students. 

In general, the study noted that “elementary school teachers perceived greater effects on subject-specific competencies (French, mathematics, science, etc.), while secondary school teachers perceived greater negative effects on academic competencies (skills related to the role of student: attention, organization, problem-solving, etc.).” 

When teachers were asked in an open-ended question to name the aspects most impacted by COVID-19, they mentioned most often “the social aspect for the elementary school level, followed by attentiveness and reading, whereas for the secondary school level, motivation, participation, attentiveness, and the social aspect were mentioned most frequently.”

It’s therefore understandable that pedagogical experts are looking to decrease distractions and help students focus on the task at hand. But some teachers feel ambivalent about a cellphone ban being a real solution. 

Don’t ban, teach responsible use

Martin Cayouette has been a teacher for 30 years. He currently teaches 6th grade at the Centre de services scolaire de Montréal. He feels that learning how to use something correctly is better than banning it. 

“A smartphone is not just a phone,” he says. “It’s also a thesaurus, a verb conjugator, a dictionary. Sure, you may get the odd picture that shouldn’t have been taken, but teaching responsibility and consent is far more important as far as I’m concerned.”

Cayouette says that even if teachers confiscate cellphones, if they don’t take the time to explain the reasoning behind the measure and teach responsible use, preteens and teens will fail to understand why. 

But some parents, who freely admit to being overwhelmed by how omnipresent cellphones are, believe a ban could prove a welcome respite for both teachers and their students. Tina Wayland, whose teenage daughter received a smartphone halfway through Grade 7, says that monitoring her child’s phone usage is “both necessary and overwhelming.” She points out that a lot of kids have zero monitoring at all and feels that government regulation comes with power and authority that will enable educators to take a firm and consistent stand on phone usage. She feels a school-wide ban law will empower schools, teachers and parents to remove phones in places where students need to focus their attention.

“Phones in high school (and even elementary schools) are basically ubiquitous now,” Wayland says. “Kids carry them in their hands all day. They pull them out whenever they get a free minute. It is a tool and, I would argue, also a kind of addiction. It provides a distraction in times of stress and anxiety, an alternative to paying attention that is easy to hide, and a way to speak to other kids in and outside of class without a grownup catching on.”

Wayland worries that smartphone addiction can be overpowering. “They sit on desk corners like a piece of unwrapped chocolate,” she says, “an easy dopamine hit, and kids reach for them constantly, often without even thinking. Teachers spend so much time just trying to focus their students’ attention away from the distraction of their phones. For Quebec especially, where French public-school drop-out rates are so high, we need to be putting every chance on students’ side.”

Link between cellphone addiction and a rise in teenage anxiety? 

Parents aren’t the only ones worried. Many question the link between cellphone addiction and a rise in teenage depression and anxiety. 

In her book Generations, psychologist Jean Twenge analyzes mental health trends for five age groups, from the Silent Generation, born between 1925 and 1945, to Gen Z, who were born between 1995 and 2012. Twenge points to a significant increase in anxiety, depression and loneliness since 2010. She believes these rapid changes coincide with what she says “may be the most rapid uptake in a new technology in human history: the incorporation of smartphones into our lives, which has allowed nearly nonstop engagement with social media apps.”

Other psychologists, however, tell parents not to panic. They say the link between teenage depression and anxiety and cellphone and social media use is small and inconsistent

Attention spans compromised

Even the most avid smartphone user, however, can’t deny they often affect our attention spans, proving highly distracting. 

“It is a constant, constant battle and negotiation to get most kids to put their phones down,” says Wayland, who reveals part of the reason they changed schools this year for her daughter was that it offered a mainly phone-free environment for learning.

“Their attention spans often don’t allow for the attention needed to perform more patient, slow and satisfying activities like reading, playing board games or even having phone-free conversations,” she says. “And because almost all kids have phones, students constantly feel like they’re missing out, and they will go to great lengths to get that phone in their hands. I’ve heard many parents say that their child’s behaviour, interests and even well-being took a hit once they got a phone.”

Wayland refers to herself and other parents in the same predicament as “the guinea-pig generation of parents” trying to figure out how to do this. “We’re left to our own devices,” she says. “And so are schools.”

How will enforcement work? 

Now that the cellphone ban has been implemented, many teachers remain unclear about how the policy will be enforced. 

O’Neill and Cayouette both admit they haven’t received any specific instructions about how to enforce the ban. 

“When it comes to classrooms, expecting teachers to individually monitor phone use is unfair and frankly impossible,” says Wayland. “Even a school-wide ban doesn’t always work and doesn’t have the same restricting power that a law does.”

Will teachers be forced to collect and redistribute cellphones, adding to their already busy days and responsibilities? Will students be forced to leave their cellphones at home? What if parents wish to be able to reach their young kids? One of the main reasons preteens and teens are even allowed phones is so they can always be accessible to their parents. Many questions remain. 

Cellphone ban a partial solution

While many understand the reasons to implement a cellphone ban, others don’t think that banning them will be a solution to all that ails us. Cyberbullying exists beyond the school walls, internet and social media addiction are very real issues, and it’s imperative that media literacy be taught to children as early as possible so they can develop critical thinking skills and better understand how dangerous misleading online information can be. 

In the meantime, education continues to be woefully underfunded. You can remove a distraction but if the government continues not to invest in more teachers and better teaching tools, students — especially special-needs students — will continue to be underserved and not get what they need. 

“We can blame cellphones,” says Cayouette, “but everything around them is affecting their attention spans. Computer games, television… it’s not just phones. We need to teach kids how to manage this new environment, and to responsibly and correctly use the tools at their disposal, not just ban them.”

“Taking the phone away may sound like an easy solution,” Wayland says, “but it’s a lot like trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube.” ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.