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France: Cell phones banned at schools

School Cell Phone
By Syda Productions | Shutterstock
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The French government becomes the first to send this "signal to society."

With 62 votes in favor and only one against — the rest of the representatives present abstained — the French National Assembly definitively approved a new law that bans cell phones and smart phones in educational establishments, from kindergarten and elementary school through middle school. The rule, which goes into effect starting this month, doesn’t affect high school, which students in France usually start at the age of 15.

The law, which fulfills a promise made during the past presidential electoral campaign by current French president Emmanuel Macron, then the leader of the En Marche! (“On the Move!”) movement, will fill the void left in the application of the Education Code (July 12, 2010). It had already banned the use of cell phones in class, but only about half of French schools had updated their own internal rules.

While today at least 93 percent of French youth aged 12 to 17 own (or have access to) a cell phone or smart phone — this statistic emerges from a study carried out in 2016 by the ARCEP (Authority for the Regulation of Electronic Communications and Mail, abbreviated from its title in French) — the ban isn’t absolute. The internal rules of each school can, in fact, create zones where the use of the devices is permitted, and can establish some exceptions “for pedagogical uses” or for students with a disability. The law doesn’t establish penalties for infractions.

Political debate

With this legislation, the En Marche! movement—according to the head of the group in the National Assembly, Richard Ferrand—hopes to improve the social and relational abilities of French children. “These days, 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 the Education Minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, the father of four children.

Beyond sending a “message to French society,” the government of prime minister Édouard Philippe wanted to give “a much more solid legal foundation” to 2010’s Education Code, said the Education Minister, quoted by Ouest France. On the occasion of the vote after the first reading, last June 7, Blanquer described the proposal as “a 21st century law, a law of entry into the digital revolution.”

The opposition on the right speaks instead of a “simulacrum” and a “nice deception,” while according to the Socialist Party, it’s a “purely aesthetic change,” according to the Huffington Post, which also cites the opinion of Patrick Hetzel. According to that representative of Les Républicains, the law isn’t good for much, because the “text doesn’t provide any framework or any penalty for a lack of implementation.”

Parents’ associations and unions

The rule doesn’t convince the largest parents’ association either, the Federation of Councils of Parents of Students (Fédération des Conseils de Parents d’Éleves, or FCPE). “This text doesn’t add anything of pedagogical interest” and doesn’t include “any educational component for users of digital devices,” states a press release made public last June 7. For the FCPE, it’s “a text that doesn’t result in anything” and doesn’t even seem “to respond to the challenges to come” for French youth.

Another important federation of parents, the Federation of Parents of Students in Public Education (Fédération des Parents d’Elèves de l’Enseignement Public), is skeptical, but not just because its members think it will be difficult to put the legislation into effect. “We don’t think it’s possible at the moment,” declared the organization’s national president, Gérard Pommier. “Imagine a secondary school with 600 pupils. Are they going to put all their phones in a box?” he asked.

For his part, the general secretary of the National Union of Directive Personnel of National Education (Syndicat National des Personnels de Direction de l’Éducation Nationale, or SNPDEN), Philippe Vincent, pointed out that cell phones continue to be “significant” sources of distraction in classrooms, because of the rings, the vibrations, and the fact that students start to write messages as soon as the teachers turn their backs. It’s a problem felt particularly at middle schools.

A “detox” law is useful

The debate on the pros and cons has swiftly surpassed the French borders. In an article published this past June 8 in the British paper The Mirror, journalist Eva Simpson, who is the mother of one daughter, “applauds” the French government’s initiative, because “mobile phones have no place in schools.”

According to Simpson, “From the moment they wake up – for many it’s the first thing they see as they use them as alarm clocks – to the time they go to bed, children are connected to social media, games and YouTube and many don’t have the maturity to switch off.” Not only that, she adds, but “let’s face it, most adults don’t know when to switch off.”

Among the dangers tied to the excessive use of cell phones, the author mentions (among others) childhood obesity—instead of playing outside, the children prefer to be glued to their little screens—and addiction. “These games encourage users to keep playing,” Simpson observes, before mentioning the risk of other mental disorders beyond addiction.

“Scientists at the University of Korea in Seoul found children addicted to their phones were more likely to have mental disorders such as depression and anxiety,” the author explains. To conclude, she mentions a 2015 study by the London School of Economics, according to which banning cell phones in scholastic environments has the same effect on children as adding an extra week of classes.

The need to educate young people

Other commentators and experts, however,underline the importance of educating children and young people, who will be the adults of tomorrow, in the use of smart phones and other electronic devices. “And our schools need to be on the frontline of making sure [children] are able to use the internet safely and productively,” explains Peter Twining, Professor of Education at the Open University and former teacher, in the article in Mirror.

“Encompassing smartphone use into the curriculum at school could mean youngsters are better equipped to make the most of technological changes that will define their future,” Twining concludes.

That opinion is shared by Simone Fleischmann, president of the association of Bavarian teachers. “Our task as teachers is to prepare children for tomorrow’s society. And tomorrow’s society will be digital,” he writes in Spiegel Online.

“If they don’t learn how to face the challenges of the digital era at school, where will they?” Fleischmann continues, adding that “many teachers […] help their students to learn how to use the new media safely and with critical sense: what is reasonable, and what isn’t? Where are the limits? What is allowed, and what isn’t?”

Peter Holnick, father of two daughters and director of the Institute for Pedagogy of Media and Communication (Institut für Medienpädagogik und Kommunikation) in Darmstadt, in Germany, also emphasizes in the Süddeutsche Zeitung the importance of integrating new technologies in the school curriculum.

It is necessary, he says, to teach young people knowledge such as the pitfalls and risks tied to the use of the internet and cell phones, and the tricks used by the industries of publicity and music. “It’s in their interest that people spend the most time possible using their cell phone,” Holnick explains. And young people will say, “That’s something we didn’t know!”

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