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UN warns against smartphones in schools

  • November 18, 2023
  • 3 min read
UN warns against smartphones in schools

The United Nations has warned of the risks of smartphones in schools. The organisation has stated that “only technology that supports learning” should be “merited” in schools. Mobile devices, according to Unesco, can be distracting as well as posing risks to both privacy and cyber-bullying.  

Fewer than a quarter of nations have any laws or policies in place to ban phones in school, its report found. In the UK, restrictions apply in many schools as headteachers set the rules.

Manos Antonis authored the 2023 Global Education Monitor. The study found “examples of smartphone use in school that is distracting students from learning and increasing risks to their privacy at the same time,” he told the BBC, adding that “only technology that supports learning has a place in school.”

However, he also warned against shielding students completely from technology. Countries, he said, needed to give better guidance on the type of technology that should be allowed in school. A number of studies have found that banning mobile phones from school can improve academic performance.

In 2021, the then-education secretary Gavin Williamson called for a ban on mobile phones in schools in England. The current Department for Education (DfE) guidance leaves it up to head teachers to decide but it does warn that allowing access to phones in schools can be detrimental to learning. “Head teachers should consider restricting or prohibiting mobile phones to reduce these risks,” its guidance states.

A parents association for eight primary schools in Ireland introduced a voluntary ban on smartphones for children in the home and at school back in June. Some felt that banning them in the home was excessive, saying that mobile phones can be useful for contacting parents.

In 2017, Bangladesh banned both students and teachers in schools and colleges from bringing phones into classrooms. France also has a ban in place, though an exception is made in certain cases, such as for students with disabilities, or when smartphones can be used for teaching. In 2024, the Netherlands will “mostly ban” phones, tablets, and even smartwatches from secondary school classrooms.

A ban on phones could work for some schools but in others, it can cause more problems than it solves. That’s what Sarah Hannafin, head of policy at school leaders’ union NAHT, says. It can lead “to pupils becoming more secretive about their phone use meaning problems are hidden from staff and therefore more difficult to spot and address,” she said. “There are also practical reasons why pupils may need a mobile phone such as while travelling to and from school.” Schools help to prepare young people for the outside world and that includes managing screen time, she said. “Individual schools know their pupils and communities so are best placed to develop their own policies when it comes to mobile phones.”

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