India has 1.2 billion mobile phone users and over 600 million smartphone users. That figure is expected to cross a billion by 2026, according to a Deloitte study, indicating that a future world will be dependent on these small devices. However, one place where smartphone usage has become controversial is the classroom. Last month, UNESCO recommended a universal ban on the usage of smartphones in schools, saying that it was needed to tackle classroom disruption, improve learning, and help protect children from cyberbullying. In an advisory dated August 10, titled “Restrictions on the use of mobile phones in school premises under rule 43 of DSER 1973”, the Directorate of Education, Private School Branch, Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi, has highlighted the need for all stakeholders connected with school education such as students, parents, teachers and heads of schools “to arrive at a consensus on the minimum use of mobile phones in the school environment so that a more meaningful learning atmosphere could be maintained in the classroom”. In a conversation moderated by Priscilla Jebaraj, Jyoti Arora and K.R. Maalathi weigh in on whether a complete ban on smartphones in schools is necessary.
Ms. Arora, as the principal of a school, what do you think of UNESCO’s recommendation, and what has been your experience in your own school?
Jyoti Arora: UNESCO has clearly warned against an uncritical rush towards embracing digital products in educational settings. There is a little evidence digital technology’s added value in education. But there is a clear threat also, with the report highlighting that mere proximity to a mobile device was found to distract students. This is more than sufficient for us to understand that mobile phone should not be allowed in the education system. When you speak about the future, that it will be completely dependent on technology — to my understanding, the future is in our hands. And certainly we want to create a safe future for our learners.
I firmly believe that mobile phones should not be allowed in schools. It’s a significant source of distraction. Students are easily tempted to check notifications. Even children studying in middle school, they are getting too much engaged in social media, playing games leading to complete decline in their focus on academic tasks. Any decision on this issue must prioritise student wellbeing and align with the institution’s core values. The implications of such a choice must be carefully considered, because it can lead to great damage.
Dr. Maalathi, you have helped to set up schools in India, Qatar, and Africa. What is the international perspective on positives and negatives?
K.R. Maalathi: Prior to 2019 — that is, pre pandemic — definitely smartphones were a no-no everywhere. And then the pandemic hit, everybody wanted to use the smartphone and we gave the smartphones in hand.
In Finland, Australia, England or other developed nations, definitely smartphones are there. A blanket ban definitely cannot be an answer. First, smartphones are everywhere. Children have access to it, and parents are giving it to them. And with the increasing number of edtech products, which are coming into the market today… We talk about digitalisation, including the government; the NEP [National Education Policy] gives a lot of importance to smartphones. Even the state curriculum gives a lot of QR codes [for additional resources].
Researchers feel that this is the way to go forward, with AI coming into the big picture. But does it really help, or what kind of damage it may do, we have not done the research in our country.
In countries that have done extensive research, they use an age restriction when students can bring phones into the classroom, 16 years; in Finland, it is about 12 years.
In our country, if you ban it, children are anyway bringing it discreetly to the classes. Frisking happens inside the classrooms to see whether children are carrying it. So that brings in a lot of pressure on the school.
There is age appropriateness. In England, children are allowed to bring in their phones from about Year Four and Year Five, but they will have to deposit their phones.
In Finland, from about 12 years of age they are allowed to bring their phones along with them and they are allowed to keep it in their hands even when the classes are run.
Earlier, Australia had no restrictions, but post-COVID, looking at the mental well-being and the emotional well-being, at the behaviour problems which have started, they have also brought in some kind of restrictions with regard to usage of smartphones inside the campuses.
So in many ways, the global situation is in flux. UNESCO says that one in four countries now have a ban or some sort of restrictions. Ms. Arora, you’re on the CBSE Governing Board. Would you say they should impose a ban for all schools, or should schools make up their own minds?
Jyoti Arora: Here, I think the intervention of authorities is highly solicited. At home, if children are using it in a safe manner, with the supervision of parents, that’s perfectly alright. But what the dangers are very alarming. There is research conducted by the London School of Economics, highlighting the positive effects of not allowing mobile phones, because it clearly enhances academic performance of the children. And psychologists also advocate that mobile phones are addictive in nature, and can hinder concentration and social skills, and cause increased number of anxiety and mental illness cases.
Also read | Is a smartphone-free childhood possible?
UNESCO is urging governments to put learners first, and also urged policy makers to ensure child data protection laws. We have written to our authorities like CBSE, the Department of Education, and even to our honourable Minister of Home to look into this and give us some kind of school safety policy. Because if anything wrong happens, whether cybercrime or any kind of other incident related to mobile phones, then schools are considered to be the most sensitive target.
So I think we should promote more face to face interaction to maintain academic integrity and to foster a healthy learning atmosphere. Because in those times when there were no mobile phones in the class, then also learning happened.
K.R. Maalathi: Unfortunately, I believe that I agree with you. We are facing a very tough time with regard to mobile phones because children tend to lose their sleep, addiction levels are very high, there are emotional, mental and behavioural issues, but what I believe is blanket bans are very rarely the most effective ways to solve a behavioural issue.
Because teens do not know the world without smartphones at all. They were born in a digital world. I agree with you, it is actually taking a toll on their mental well-being. Just like we have an age for the driving license, we have an age to be a voter, similarly, we can actually have an age for this, because our job in schools is to prepare them for life, even to use a smartphone in a better way. I think we can do it, but there will definitely be challenges. I’m not talking about primary school age, I’m definitely not talking about children who are below 14 years.
You had mentioned earlier that you had approached some of the students in the schools that you work with. What are their perspectives?
K.R. Maalathi: It was a very interesting conversation. Some of them beautifully said, Ma’am, it is okay to allow, we’ll be more than happy to bring them inside. But only thing is, we don’t trust our own peers, though we trust ourselves. Or we may bring two phones, and then hide one, and submit one. Some said, we run to school to hide ourselves from our smartphones; I feel school is a safer zone because my addiction levels have gone beyond imagination.
But another perspective was, why don’t you sensitise us, you are preparing us for a world beyond the classrooms or the school. When we enter college, there are no restrictions. And how do we know to manage mobile phones if you don’t allow us to use it or give us digital literacy? How do we derive information from it to be smart enough because you talk about AI, you talk about so many other things, we should also be taught about it.
Jyoti Arora: When you are dealing with the mindset of maybe 40 students sitting in a classroom, that’s a very challenging situation. And they are in the school for just six hours.
Students are vulnerable to cyber bullying, comparisons, unrealistic standards, resulting in depression, feelings of inadequacy.
Prohibiting mobile phones during school hours will definitely offer students relief from these pressures. And this will foster healthier interactions because they will be engaging in face-to -face interactions instead, where they are open to share their feelings. They’re getting a space to vent out, talking to their friends, their teachers.
And of course, it’s older students who may be more susceptible to cyber bullying; there have been cases amounting to criminal activity. Apart from the academic, social and behavioural perspectives, there’s also an economic angle to this. Have you seen evidence of a digital divide?
Jyoti Arora: It might raise the disparities among students belonging to various socio-economic backgrounds, because students with access to the latest expensive devices could experience an advantage, while those with limited resources might feel left out or stigmatised. The presence of mobile phones also increases the risk of theft, and schools may struggle to manage security.
Dr. Maalathi, you have had experience in working with rural schools. And it’s true that during COVID, school education would have totally collapsed without online classes, most of which was accessed through smartphones. But it also exposed the lack of access for students in remote or rural areas. Several governments are giving devices to students to bridge this digital divide. What kind of safeguards need to be put in place to ensure that that works out as a positive thing?
A digital divide need not be addressed only by your smartphone it can be definitely be taken care of by laptops, tablets, iPads. We could even give internet facilities if teachers are trained on how to use it. Before we give anything to the children, the adults around the children need to be sensitised.
There is a lot of difference in the way children learn today inside the classroom. Those who were born during COVID, when they entered kindergarten, there is so much difference because these children have been watching social media and YouTube, through which they have learned so much before they could enter the kindergarten classrooms.
When you start interacting with children, the kind of positivity that the technology has given to them, we cannot deny it at all. That’s the only reason that I keep saying that we can’t have a blanket ban.
Jyoti Arora: I think the solution to all these problems, the benefits of technology within the school can be addressed if the schools could advance their digital learning spaces. Those should be open to the children to access, so that any time if they need any important information, there should be a mechanism for the children to access the information.
We need to look into some kind of alternatives like enhancement of digital spaces, availability of laptops, and tablets in the libraries. If a school could invest into advancing the digital infrastructure, that would be a great help to the children.
K.R. Maalathi: I completely agree with you, ma’am. I only want to add that there is a need for our own research. UNESCO’s recommendation is backed by research. Now when the NEP focusses on digital content and giving more importance to technology inside the classroom, and State governments give QR codes, it needs to be based on research in our own society.
Jyoti Arora is Principal of the Mount Abu Public School, Delhi and a member of the CBSE Governing Board; K.R. Maalathi is an educator, with experience in teaching, curriculum design, and school establishment and management