UN agency calls on schools to ban smartphones in classrooms

26 Jul 2023

Image: © Syda Productions/Stock.adobe.com

UNESCO says that even though smartphones are a ‘proven distraction’ to learning, fewer than a quarter of countries ban their use in schools.

A major UN report has called on schools across the world to ban the use of smartphones in classrooms to prevent disruption and cyberbullying among children.

Published this week by UNESCO, the UN agency responsible for education, science and culture, the report highlights the lack of appropriate governance and regulation of technology in the education sector and details parts of the world where a school ban on smartphones is already in place.

“The digital revolution holds immeasurable potential but, just as warnings have been voiced for how it should be regulated in society, similar attention must be paid to the way it is used in education,” said UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay.

“Its use must be for enhanced learning experiences and for the wellbeing of students and teachers, not to their detriment. Keep the needs of the learner first and support teachers. Online connections are no substitute for human interaction.”

Other than checking children’s use of smartphones, the report also recommends a broader scrutiny of digital technology, including the deployment of emerging tech such as artificial intelligence. It believes that AI and other technologies should never trump a “human-centred vision” of education and argues that face-to-face interaction with teachers is essential.

“Not all change constitutes progress,” the report states. “Just because something can be done does not mean it should be done.”

The UN agency argues that while technology can help aid education in many contexts, tech for tech’s sake is not a good idea. Distributing computers to students, for example, does not improve learning if teachers are “not involved in the pedagogical experience”.

It said that the use of smartphones has proven to be a distraction to learning, and yet, fewer than a quarter of countries ban their use in schools.

“We need to learn [from] our past mistakes when using technology in education so that we do not repeat them in the future,” added UNESCO director Manos Antoninis.

“We need to teach children to live both with and without technology; to take what they need from the abundance of information, but to ignore what is not necessary; to let technology support, but never supplant human interactions in teaching and learning.”

Last month, a Guardian report detailed how parents in Greystones, Co Wicklow have recently decided to collectively restrict the use of smartphones among the town’s primary school students in a bid to “preserve their innocence” and prevent anxiety and abuse among kids.

“Childhoods are getting shorter and shorter,” Rachel Harper, principal of the local St Patrick’s school which led the initiative, told the outlet, adding that nine-year-olds had started requesting smartphones. “It was creeping in younger and younger, we could see it happening.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic