A new Unesco report calls for a global ban on smartphones in schools, arguing that they distract pupils, raise privacy concerns, and lead to cyberbullying, all without offering substantial benefits to learners.
“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 Audrey Azoulay, Unesco’s director general.
“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.”
The points raised in the report are all widely rehearsed — not just in schools, but in general use. Mobile phone use can be distracting and addictive, to the degree that both Apple and Google have screen-time features for limiting usage. Data collection from mobile phones is also a serious concern, and campaigners have long warned about the dangers of social media on young people’s mental health.
But in the past, these points have been countered by the potential benefits of the technology for students. And here the report suggests that — beyond offering assistance to those with disabilities — these don’t justify the costs. Indeed, the report cautions that some of the evidence highlighting technology’s benefit to education is funded by those selling digital-learning products.
“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,” argued Manos Antoninis, director of the Global Education Monitoring report.
The report estimates that around a quarter of countries already ban smartphone use in schools. This includes France, which instituted a ban five years ago, and it will soon be joined by the Netherlands, where restrictions will be introduced from 2024.
The UK is currently in the three-quarters of countries that don’t have formal bans, with the Department for Education allowing headteachers to set policy on a local level.
There was a sign this was going to change in 2021, when then education secretary Gavin Williamson wrote of his support for a ban of smartphones in schools.
This may now be revisited. Current education secretary Nick Gibb said the Government would “look very carefully” at the UN report, to see “whether there are lessons we can learn”.