French stu­dents re­act to phone ban: ‘It’s not true that we can’t con­cen­trate’

The Guardian Weekly - - International News - Paris diary An­gelique Chrisafis

At the end of lessons at Claude De­bussy mid­dle school in Paris, a clas­si­cal mu­sic jin­gle played in­stead of a bell and teenagers poured out of the gates. Sev­eral 13-year-olds quickly reached into their bags to check their mo­bile phones, which had been switched off for a record eight hours.

As of last week, chil­dren’s phones have been banned from all state mid­dle schools in France un­der a new law that pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron said would help detox teenagers from their screens.

“I thought I would be freaked out, but it has been fine,” said one 13-year-old girl, who got an iPhone when she was 11. “I left my phone in my bag all day and I was sur­prised to find it didn’t bother me. Nor­mally I’d be on Snapchat and In­sta­gram. But my friends are here at school so it’s pretty easy to just talk in­stead.”

She felt she would likely use her phone more at home. “My par­ents don’t set rules on phone use, but I’ve made my own rule: I don’t check my phone af­ter 11.30pm on a school night.”

Her friend, also 13, likes us­ing her phone for watch­ing Net­flix, but the school con­nec­tion was al­ways too patchy, so she used to look at pho­tos and lis­ten to mu­sic at break­time. “I haven’t found it hard to ig­nore my phone this week,” she said. “But there is still a phys­i­cal re­flex some­times to reach for it and get it out.”

The school in Paris’s 15th ar­rondisse­ment – where pupils aged 11 to 15 come from a mix of high-in­come and poorer fam­i­lies – pre­pared for the new law by in­tro­duc­ing phone­free Mon­days last term.

Pre­vi­ously, staff had no­ticed that at break­time chil­dren would mostly be stand­ing in the play­ground look­ing at their phones.

“About four or five weeks into our phone-free Mon­day ex­per­i­ment, we saw chil­dren bring­ing packs of cards into school to play in break­time,” said the prin­ci­pal, Eric Lathière. “We hadn’t seen cards at school for years. Chil­dren brought books in to read and pupils stood around chat­ting far more than they had be­fore.”

He ap­proves of the new law: “It’s about ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple on phone ad­dic­tion – and not just chil­dren, adults too. Any mo­ment in the day when you can try to do [some­thing] with­out a phone re­quires an ef­fort but it’s a habit worth form­ing.”

But he’s adamant the ban shouldn’t be seen as anti-technology. “We can’t go against dig­i­tal. That would be like try­ing to keep schools back from the evo­lu­tion of so­ci­ety. It’s about ed­u­ca­tion around tech use.”

The cen­trist Macron made ban­ning phones in schools part of his elec­tion man­i­festo not long af­ter the New York city mayor, Bill de Bla­sio, did the op­po­site, over­turn­ing a ban on cell­phones in pub­lic schools in 2015, say­ing par­ents wanted to keep in touch with their chil­dren.

The French ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter, Jean-Michel Blan­quer, called the ban a detox law for the 21st cen­tury, say­ing teenagers should have the right to dis­con­nect. Chil­dren’s phones were al­ready banned in class­rooms – ex­cept for teach­ing pur­poses – but un­der the new law they are banned ev­ery­where in­side the gates. The French se­nate ex­panded this to al­low high schools to ban phones. But few are ex­pected to do so. Many sug­gest 18-year-old high-school pupils with the right to vote can make their own de­ci­sions.

Frédérique Ro­let, sec­re­tary gen­eral of the SNES-FSU teach­ing union, said the first week of the ban ap­peared to have gone smoothly but the law wasn’t a mon­u­men­tal change: 60% of state mid­dle schools had al­ready de­cided to ban phones from play­grounds. She said: “The ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter sought to ap­peal to par­ents say­ing he was aware of the prob­lem of phone ad­dic­tion. But there are other im­por­tant prob­lems, such as grow­ing class sizes, job cuts and the lack of teach­ing staff that also need to be talked about.”

Schools that had banned phones say they have no­ticed more so­cial in­ter­ac­tion be­tween chil­dren, more em­pa­thy be­tween pupils and a readi­ness to learn at the start of lessons.

Jean-Noël Taché, the prin­ci­pal of a mid­dle school with 800 pupils in ru­ral Avey­ron, in­tro­duced the phone ban last week for the first time. He said: “There had been so much me­dia talk about it that pupils and fam­i­lies were well pre­pared. It’s as if chil­dren not us­ing their phones at school has sim­ply be­come habit.”

Pre­vi­ously, his pupils could use their phones at break time. “But we’d no­ticed that lit­tle by lit­tle the phone use was mov­ing from the play­ground into the hall, then into the cor­ri­dors, the lunch queues, out­side the class­room door. Pupils weren’t mak­ing calls, they were send­ing mes­sages, play­ing or look­ing at their phone – it was like it had be­come an ex­ten­sion of their hand.”

In Paris, Michèle Bayard, a mod­ern lit­er­a­ture and lan­guage teacher, said she hadn’t no­ticed pupils com­plain­ing: “This could bring a fo­cus on new ac­tiv­i­ties and in­ter­ac­tion.”

But at the school gate, a 14-yearold girl felt more credit should be given to today’s teenagers who had grown up with smart­phones. “There is this idea that our gen­er­a­tion can’t con­cen­trate or has lost the abil­ity to so­cialise, that’s not true,” she said. “When I’m with friends, show­ing them a pic­ture on my phone or look­ing some­thing up just adds to our con­ver­sa­tion. It’s a shame that I can’t do that in­side school any­more.”

I haven’t found it hard to ig­nore my phone. But there is still a phys­i­cal re­flex to reach for it and get it out

Fran­cois Lepage

A mo­bile phone ban in mid­dle schools be­gan last week

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