Nova Scotia government’s smartphone restrictions don’t go nearly far enough

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Appeared in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, June 28, 2024
Nova Scotia government’s smartphone restrictions don’t go nearly far enough

According to a new directive from the Houston government, beginning next schoolyear, junior high and high school students in Nova Scotia must turn off and keep their phones out of sight during classroom instruction, with exceptions based on the discretion of teachers who will be forced to deliberate on every smartphone request.

While this is a step in the right direction, unfortunately, this policy does not go nearly far enough. Which is puzzling, because the Houston government clearly recognizes that smartphones cause problems in schools. In the same directive, the government said that beginning next schoolyear students in elementary schools must store their smartphones for the duration of the school day. It’s just common sense, although the empirical evidence also supports stronger restrictions.

For example, according to the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Insights report, 80 per cent of Canadian students feel anxious if their phones are not with them—that’s higher than the average of 65 per cent among 38 high-income countries in the OECD, and underscores the unhealthy relationship Canadian teenagers have with their phones.

There’s a similar story in math class specifically. Six in 10 students in OECD countries said they were distracted by the digital devices (e.g. phones) of other students in math class. And kids who were distracted by smartphones—either their own, or the phones of other kids in their class—performed markedly worse on math tests than students who face no digital distraction in class.

Another study found that it took kids a full 20 minutes to regain focus after just one distraction. And further research found that even having a phone nearby, with notifications buzzing, is enough to cause students to lose focus on their classroom tasks.

It’s critical to remember that children and teenagers do not have a fully formed prefrontal cortex (unlike adults), which predisposes them to increased anxiety when worrying about notifications on their phones, impacting their ability to focus. Consider how difficult it is for adults to regain focus in the presence of buzzing notifications, or after looking at a phone. It’s much more difficult for young people.

One recent study found that the typical teenager receives 237 smartphone notifications per day, averaging about 15 per hour. That’s a massive amount of potential distraction, even if phones are banned in schools most of the time. Leading social psychologist Jonathan Haidt advocates a full ban on smartphones in schools, for all grades, requiring kids to put them in lockers or locked pouches for the entirety of the school day.

Most Canadian parents support this policy. A January 2024 poll found eight in 10 Canadian parents support banning smartphones in public schools.

And yet, the Houston government’s new smartphone restrictions in junior high and high schools allow for various exceptions based on individual school rules. While this new directive is a step in the right direction, it lags behind the wishes of most parents and the conclusions of researchers. By allowing students to keep their phones on them, and permitting exceptions, the government has not removed the distraction.

The policy will also continue to burden teachers who must surveil and nag students about their phones in class. A real ban on smartphones in Nova Scotia schools can’t come soon enough.

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