Year Ahead

More Canadian schools will say no to smartphones 

Whether distraction or addiction, devices will keep getting kicked out of classrooms
Sachin Maharaj

Sachin Maharaj is an assistant professor of educational leadership, policy and program evaluation at the University of Ottawa.

I started teaching law, history, business and politics at a Toronto high school in 2007—right after the Toronto District School Board instituted its first ban on cellphones in the classroom. Back then, enforcement amounted to telling one or two students to put their devices away. As the years went on and smartphones became ubiquitous, half the class had their phones out at any given time. My colleagues and I spent more of our lesson time engaged in emotionally draining negotiations with students. Parents, wanting to stay in touch with their kids throughout the day, were another major source of resistance.

By 2011, the TDSB had reversed its ban, partly due to pushback and partly because of a shift toward 21st-century learning, an educational philosophy that incorporates technologies such as laptops and iPhones into the classroom rather than fighting them. Around that time, I took a leave to get my master’s degree and Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy. I began writing opinion essays for news outlets about the detrimental effects of phones on concentration, the first of which explained why the TDSB’s reversal was a mistake.

My pro-ban position hasn’t changed, and supporting evidence has only grown. Half of Canadian children between the ages of seven and 11 now have their own mobile device, a stat that jumps to 87 per cent for kids aged 12 to 17. Research broadly shows that when phones are allowed in class, kids learn less and perform worse. We can clearly see the impact of smartphones on socialization: students now spend their recesses looking at phones instead of each other. Violent incidents in schools are posted and streamed online for everyone to see. Right now, many provinces are also experiencing teacher shortages spurred on by difficult working conditions, which smartphone spats only exacerbate.

As long as phones are out of sight during lessons, I’m agnostic as to how that’s accomplished. There are few studies on the effects of different kinds of cellphone restrictions—but they should always be tailored to the social and political contexts of each school. Many boards permit phones on school premises, but they have to be stored in lockers. In other cases, like at Corner Brook Intermediate School and O’Donel High School in Newfoundland, schools have experimented with the use of in-class pouches, where students leave their phones and pick them up at the end of the lesson. The upside of unevenly executed restrictions is that we’ll be able to monitor which ones seem to work best.

I believe we’ll see more of these bans in 2024. Last year, after a major UNESCO report revealed a lack of evidence that smartphones have improved student learning, the province of Quebec announced its intent to ban cellphones in all public-school classrooms “as soon as possible.” (The rough deadline was the end of 2023.) Francophone schools in Manitoba have banned kids from kindergarten to Grade 8 from bringing phones to school, and high school students now have to store their devices during school hours, with the exception of lunch. I’ve spoken to educators in the Maritimes who are waiting to see how bans go over in bigger jurisdictions before enacting their own, but interest is there.

In theory, the Ontario government has banned phones in classrooms since 2019, unless allowed by the teacher or used for pedagogical purposes. In practice, kids still use their phones all the time. This is what happens when enforcement is left up to individual instructors. Before rolling out restrictions, provinces should hold consultations with parents, teachers and other educators to determine the best course of action in each school district. (Involving parents early on in the conversation also increases the likelihood of buy-in later.) Stakeholders outside of the education world have a role to play, too. A newly formed Canadian grant-making foundation called the Waltons Trust, for example, is convening policy experts and education leaders who advocate for getting kids away from screens and into nature.

The prevailing attitude in education used to be that anyone critical of classroom tech was a dinosaur, and that we should just teach students to use phones responsibly. The problem, as we now know, is that phones aren’t designed for that. Last October, dozens of American states sued Meta alleging that apps like Instagram are harming children’s mental health. After so many months spent forcing students to learn via screen during the pandemic, more teachers seem to be enthusiastic about experiential learning—learning by doing—which, to me, is a very good thing.

For all my work, I often think about cellphone restrictions through the lens of a parent. My eldest daughter is now in Grade 6 and, unlike many of her peers, she doesn’t have a smartphone. It’s definitely a source of tension between us, but it’s encouraged her to spend her time hanging out with friends (and her three siblings). I hope bans at school lead other parents to reconsider smartphones at home, too.

This article is part of the Year Ahead 2024, which is Maclean’s annual look at everything that’s coming your way next year. You can buy the print version right here.