Yes, Sue Social Media - But Hypocritical School Boards Still Allow Phones In Classrooms


I must say it was nice to see the Ontario School Boards sue the big social media companies for deliberately hurting students. 

While many don’t believe the school boards will prevail in this case, many are hoping it will draw more awareness to the dangers to children of unfettered access to social media. I would share that sentiment, but I take a dim view of virtue signals and hollow gestures when the safety of kids are at stake. 

The school boards must take the needed step of removing the gateway device to social media - the smartphone.  If you are going to take the stand that social media is hurting kids, then how can you in good conscience allow access to it in schools? 

In fact, the school boards themselves, maybe opening themselves up to the same litigation, once harm to kids is legally established. 

Many have argued, as I have, that smartphones will be soon seen in the same light as smoking in the 1950’s.  Back then, smoking took place in school washrooms, smoker pits and teacher lounges. The science was just starting to foreshadow the harms being caused.  Younger generations now give incredulous looks to anyone from that era, asking, “what were you thinking?” 

I believe that same question is going to be asked down the road too, but do we need to have such a long learning curve? 

According to the findings in social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Anxious Generation, since 2010 (when smartphone use spiked) a tsunami of mental health issues among youth has followed. Self harm and suicides from depression and anxiety get the attention - as they should, but there are more universal unhealthy consequences of heavy phone use among kids.  They are losing out on play based learning opportunities that lead to deficits in social and communication skills. 

So what to do? 

We could do what Liberals just announced for their upcoming spring budget and just throw more money at the problem. Or we could try some preventative action before waiting for more cause and effect evidence to pile up.  

I suggest school boards have to get serious about removing all cell phones from not just classrooms, but for the entire school day.  Currently, cell phone policy is left to individual teachers and or administrators to establish and enforce. This isn’t good enough. The Ontario Ministry of Education has blown a lot of hot air on the topic, but as of now talk of new policies have been just that - talk. In the absence of clear direction, teachers have been left to set their own rules. 
Last year I decided to adopt a three strike rule for my senior high school classes. Once the lesson begins, if a cell phone is seen, the class receives a strike. Three strikes in the week and ALL cell phones are placed in cell phone pockets in the front of the room, for the rest of the week. Next week, strikes are reset and students are given the opportunity to practice self regulation again.  Since implementing this policy I have had phones placed at the front for a total of 5 days, and only once this year so far. While I have been pleasantly surprised by how well this has gone, I know it doesn’t go far enough.  As soon as I dismiss them fewer, but still far too many go right to their screens.  

Walk the halls at lunch or between classes and phone use is rampant.  You would think that bladders have shrunk in the last dozen years with the amount of bathroom trips kids now “need” to take. Even in some classes where phones are “banned” students sit like zombies on their phones. It takes energy and discipline to enforce a policy and as anyone who has gone to school knows, not all teachers are created equal. Letting disruptive kids stare at their phones is a go to technique for overwhelmed teachers who equate the phone and earbuds to a baby soother. 

Some teachers will argue, they provide phones to supplement internet access needed for class activities. If that’s the case, then school boards need to make sure there are ample Chromebooks available.  Some concerned parents may see this as kids replacing one screen for another, but there are differences. For one, Chromebooks don’t use data and will only connect to sites allowed by a school’s Wi-Fi network.  They also aren’t providing notifications and certainly would not be the students preferred device choice. 

In terms of getting the phones out of schools completely, I acknowledge that is impractical and is not going to happen. What we can do quite easily right now is have students surrender their phones at the beginning of the school day in their assigned classrooms.  Students can get their phones back in the same class at the end of the day.  This is quite easy to do at the elementary level, but would require secondary schools to return to home form to collect their phone. 

The main benefit under this approach is to not only remove the phone in the classroom, but in the school as well.  Students would not have access in washrooms, between classes or most importantly at lunch. During this time, social interaction and play based learning can occur once again organically.  We need to reclaim the opportunities for socialization that the phone has taken away. 

Some will look at this as too heavy handed and would argue for each individual to make their own learning and phone use choices. My rebuttal to the libertarian approach is that is what we are currently doing. How’s that going? 

The peer pressure of being the kid without a phone, makes it difficult for parents who want their child to swim against the stream.  It’s hard to socialize if you’re the only one not on a phone.  So for this to work - the action like the response to any public health emergency must be collective. The pushback is lessened when we’re all in this together - so yes teachers, that would include us putting our phones away too. We could all use the break.  

We would never knowingly let kids do harm to themselves in school otherwise, so why is this different? 

We now know too much to let today’s public smoking continue. Lawsuits are great school boards, but you can’t claim the moral high ground when you allow access to the very product you despise on your own school playground. 

Written By Gregory Cawsey

JUSTCAWS and Public #onted are reader-supported publications. To receive new ad free posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.