This French Middle School Banned Mobile Phones 4 Years Ago. Should U.S. Schools Follow Suit?

“If you’re all standing around with phones, you talk about what’s on the screen rather than really listening to each other.”

As technology progresses, we've come to realize that these advances are both a blessing and a curse. Humanity thrives on innovation, yet these tools often hinder society just as much as they help. Mobile phones, for instance, have broken barriers and built walls simultaneously, enabling communication and impairing connection in the same breath. One middle school in France, however, has instituted policies that attempt to break the cycle of screen addiction among children and teens.

La Gautrais Middle School, located in the French village of Plouasne, banned the use of mobile phone on its grounds four years ago, long before now-French president Emmanuel Macron launched his nationwide ban on mobile phones in schools. (His "detox" efforts officially go into effect this September.) With 290 students between 12 and 16 years of age, the staff has noticed more social interaction between children, greater empathy, and increased eagerness to learn, The Guardian reports. Students have become much more focused on their studies. 

"No phone use at school gives pupils a moment's peace from social networks and some children tell us they appreciate that," said the headteacher, Yves Koziel. "On social networks there's an acceleration and extreme simplification of group relationships which can create conflict, even bullying. We're freeing them from that – at least during the day. We're cutting the umbilical cord and offering some respite from it."

And, contrary to expectations, students actually appreciate and enjoy the ban.

"I do have a phone, but I leave it at home and don't really think about it much," one 14-year-old student told The Guardian.

Anatole Desriac, who recently got his first mobile phone at age 15, also approved of the ban. "When I'm with my friends I prefer a proper conversation," he explained. "If you're all standing around with phones, you talk about what's on the screen rather than really listening to each other."

But could a similar ban succeed in U.S. schools?

According to Common Sense Media's recent study, American children ages 0 to 8 use screen media for an average of two hours and 19 minutes each day, with almost 35 percent of said screen time involving a mobile device. These figures far exceed the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendations, which suggest children younger than 18 months should not use any screen media (except for video chatting), and that, until age 5, children should be limited to one hour of screen time per day.

Affording children such early exposure to mobile screen media can also have detrimental effects down the road, as these trends have potentially serious consequences for teens' mental health.

"In the period between 2012 and 2016, more and more teens began to say they felt useless and joyless — classic symptoms of depression," Jean M. Twenge writes for The San Diego Union-Tribune. "More started to say they felt anxious and overwhelmed. Clinical-level depression among teens increased by 50 percent, and the number of 10- to 14-year-old girls admitted to emergency rooms for self-harm (such as cutting) tripled. Most concerning of all, the suicide rate for teen girls doubled."

Yet, while the U.S. currently boasts anti-screen initiatives, such as Wait Until 8th, which encourages parents to wait until their kids turn 14 before allowing them to have a mobile phone, America has yet to fight childhood screen addiction — and its subsequent mental health issues — on a widespread scale. However, as Twenge notes, schools can help curb these trends.

"The use of phones should be banned during the school day," Twenge explains. "Teachers say phones are a constant distraction in class. One study found that just having your phone nearby reduces your thinking power. In an increasingly competitive global economy, we want students to focus on learning, not on their phones."

"Many students are also buried in their phones during lunch period, a time that could be used for social interaction," Twenge adds. "Instead, teens feel rejected and left out and miss out on what should be a time for developing social skills and making memories with friends."

However, in the U.S. particularly, administrators must differentiate between limiting screen time and permitting mobile phones, as these gadgets often double as life-saving devices. While banning unauthorized use in classrooms, especially during lessons, seems warranted, schools should allow students to carry phones throughout the day for safety purposes. 

As Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second largest teachers' union, tells NPR: "Every day, but especially in a crisis, cellphones give parents peace of mind. The reality is that kids need access to cellphones to get to and from school safely and to let parents know they're OK." Weingarten adds that, while districts should be free to make their own rules, "we must recognize cellphones as an essential safety and security tool."

Dr. Liz Kolb, professor at the University of Michigan's School of Education, also highlight that, according to a recent Nielsen survey, parents want their children to have phones so they can easily stay in touch. Along with the Associated Press, Kolb explains that phone access remains crucial for those in the midst of a school emergency, emphasizing that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students used their phones during the school shooting to reach loved ones, call for help, and share updates on the rampage in real time.

"As there has been an increase in school safety concerns in the news, it is not surprising that more parents might push for their children to be able to have a cell phone in school," Kolb tells Gizmodo. "In the rare case that something may occur, the believe by some parents is that a cell phone could be a useful tool for safety — being able to immediately dial their parent or an outside authority for help."

Instead of fixating on banning mobile phones entirely, schools should focus on teaching children how to use these devices properly and responsibly. Mobile devices might be relatively intuitive to operate, but etiquette requires guidance. If we work to limit screen time and teach self-restraint, children can easily keep their phone on them at all times, sans temptation, so they may always have peace of mind and protection.

Cover image via Twin Design / Shutterstock

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