What’s good for schools in France is good for at least one school in Connecticut.
Next fall, all French schools will ban cell phones for students 15 and younger because “children don’t play at break time anymore; they are just all in front of their smartphones, and from an educational point of view, that’s a problem,” said Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer.
France had already banned phones in classrooms at all grade levels, but the devices kept finding their way out of student backpacks, so a total in-school ban for the under-15 crowd will be instituted.
Connecticut’s Seymour High School recognized similar behavior, so school officials in December placed a similar school-day ban on cell phones, including the use of phones for accessing social media or music.
Principal James Freund explained that “when students glance at their phones during class, they’re not paying attention to what’s being taught. It’s an interference that adds up, robbing students of instructional time even though they’re in the room.”
“I think it’s a great idea,” West Hartford psychiatrist Dr. David Greenfield told me in an interview. “The distractive factor and the addiction caused by smartphones is unprecedented, going back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.”
Dr. Greenfield is the founder and chief medical officer of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, as well as an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.
“Having a phone near you increases the cortisol level and reduces attentive capacity,” he explained. “There’s nothing good about smartphones in school. Seymour High School should be applauded.”
Dr. Greenfield described how teenagers are particularly prone to “Reward Deficiency Syndrome” in which smartphones elevate dopamine, a “pleasure neurochemical” in the brain. The more teens receive this physiological response, the more they seek repeated responses.
“Teens have a high level of this dopaminergic activity,” he said. “They’re driven by pleasurable impulses,” so smartphone use becomes a form of “self-medicating for teenagers.”
Little wonder students who have a cell phone within reach check it continually during class. “The message to teachers from students who use cell phones [during a lesson] is that they are not ‘online’ in class and cannot be reached,” said Dr. Greenfield.
The unique aspect of the ban at Seymour High School is that it lasts throughout the day, even between classes and during lunch. Some students think this all-day ban goes too far.
“The phone ban is a good concept and while it keeps us concentrated during class, it’s counterproductive to the school’s goal of teaching students how to be independent in the real world, where we won’t have adults taking away what inconveniences others,” said junior Rachel Moon.
Dr. Greenfield countered that “schools have always taken on a parental role during school hours. It’s really an extension of parenting.” Thus, he believes schools should set boundaries for kids.
“I like the idea of holding kids responsible,” he added. “No one will die without a phone during school hours. It’s not a safety issue.”
That said, the psychiatrist agreed that teenagers should be given the opportunity to learn responsible cell phone use — outside of the school setting.
“I’m not a Luddite,” he said. “I believe there are huge advantages to cell phones. They are the communication tool for the millennial generation. Every generation has a method of communication. This is theirs.”
In short, said Dr. Greenfield, “We don’t have a right to say ‘no’ totally to smartphones.” That would be akin to parents of Baby Boomers forbidding their children from listening to rock music because they feared it would cause “the end of society.” That obviously never happened.
Rather, the key is to effectively manage smartphone use.
“The data says creativity is inhibited by cell phones because boredom provides a spark,” said the UConn medical professor. Smart phones now fill those “boring spaces” and “draw their attention away.” In effect, the opportunity for the creative spark is diminished in the cell-phone era.
“There are pluses and minuses of smartphones,” Dr. Greenfield concluded. “It’s more about learning to live with a phone so we can control it, rather than it control us. It’s about creating a mindful, sustainable use.”
Kudos to Seymour High School for taking the lead in striking this balance.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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