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France debates ban on cellphones in schools

Image: Schoolchildren in a class.
Schoolchildren listen to a teacher as they study during a class in a primary school in Marseille, France. Copyright Jean-Paul Pelissier Reuters file
Copyright Jean-Paul Pelissier Reuters file
By Alice Tidey with NBC News
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The French education minister has broached the idea of banning cellphones from schools to tackle what he described as a "public health problem."

Students could soon be banned from using cellphones in French schools, in a move the government says is necessary to protect public health amid fears over the devices' long-term effects on mental development.

Under current French law, students cannot use their phones in class but schools have the power to decide if they can use them at break times.

But that may change in September, as the Ministry of Education examines how to implement a campaign pledge by President Emmanuel Macron to ban cellphones from school premises entirely.

The minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, said the measure would help tackle what he called a "public health problem."

Image: Schoolchildren in a class.
Schoolchildren listen to a teacher as they study during a class in a primary school in Marseille, France. Jean-Paul PelissierReuters file

'No abuse is tolerated'

Jerome, a middle school teacher in France's southwest Occitanie region, said a near-complete ban on cellphones was already in place for the 11- to 15-year-old students at his school. He spoke to NBC News on condition that only his first name be used because of French rules that restrict teachers from speaking to the media.

Children are allowed to bring electronic devices to school but they must be on "airplane mode" and confined to their bags, he said. Any transgression leads to the device's confiscation, so there are few rule breakers.

"We trust them, but no abuse is tolerated," Jerome explained. "And they respect the rule without grumbling."

He said that he knows another school that allows students to use their phones at recess, but sometimes fights break out after things are posted on social media.

"Contrary to our students who play, run and have fun at recess, students there appear much calmer, but they are just glued to their phones," he said.

A global issue

Concern over the long-term impact of cellphone use on young people has received increased attention recently, particularly after a leading activist investor and a pension fund published a letterurging Apple to take steps to curb how addictive iPhones are to children. The motivation for the letter wasn't entirely benign — the investors were urging Apple to solve the problem before one of its competitors does.

But it still raised alarm over an issue many teachers and parents all over the world are grappling with. Some embrace cellphone use as part of the school curriculum, while others see it as a distraction.

Canada and Belgium have "Bring Your Own Device" policies that allow students to use laptops, tablets and phones in the classroom, believing it teaches them to use the devices responsibly.

Italy overturned its own ban on phones in school in 2016 and Education Minister Valeria Fedeli has said that smartphones "are an extraordinary tool to facilitate learning."

In the German state of Bavaria, a ban was put in place on the use of phones on school grounds in 2006 after police found pornography and violent images on devices seized from students in two different towns. But that ban is being challenged and the policy may be modified this year.

And in Britain there is no law prohibiting phone use in schools, and policies vary across the country. But a recent study by the London School of Economics found that in high schools where cellphones were banned, "student performance in high stakes exams significantly increases."

Image: Elementary school children
Elementary school children use electronic tablets on the first day of class in the new school year in Nice, France. Eric GaillardReuters file

In the United States, the policies also differ from state to state and most schools set their own policies.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest in California, forbids the use of cellphones at recess and lunch, for instance, while thousands of students in Miami-Dade County, the largest public school district in Florida, receive free cellphones to help with their studies.

In New York City, a ban on cellphones in public schools that was imposed in 2006 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg was overturned in 2015 by his successor, Bill de Blasio, who argued that allowing schools to set their own policies would reduce inequaliity. The initial ban had also been criticized because it resulted in the emergence of trucks that would park near schools and charge $1 a day to store devices, with some school children paying $180 a year for the service.

Why not use the 'computer in their pockets'?

For now, parents and teachers in France appear united in their opposition to the education minister's proposal, saying the debate should not be about banning phones but regulating their use.

"Our position is that we must limit cellphones' perverse effects," said Gerard Pommier, the head of the Federation of Parents in State Schools. "We would prefer work to be done on the educational aspect. Cellphones are tools, and it's their excessive use that poses a problem."

Alexis Torchet, secretary general of the teachers' union SGEN-CFDT, said, "The question is not about banning phones but teaching student how to use them in a sensible and reasoned manner."

"About 90 percent of students have what is basically a computer in their pockets that is often more operational than the school's ones," Torchet said. "The debate must be centered around technology education."

"There is a lot of teaching to do about digital tools and digitization in general," he added.

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