French students react to phone ban: ‘It’s not true that we can’t concentrate’
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
A mobile phone ban in middle schools began last week