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Is cellphone use in B.C. classrooms failing our kids?

The Vancouver School Board's proposed plan, which is still subject to provincial approval, details how the district plans to resume classroom learning for elementary and secondary students on Sept. 10. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
The Vancouver School Board's proposed plan, which is still subject to provincial approval, details how the district plans to resume classroom learning for elementary and secondary students on Sept. 10. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

If you're reading this article in class on a phone, please wait until recess.

At least that's what 15-year-old Lucia Liberato hopes her peers will do if cellphones are banned in B.C. classrooms.

Liberato, a Grade 9 student at Vancouver's Magee Secondary School, told CBC by email that while students are physically present, "it's like being in a classroom of robots."

"I often see people on YouTube shorts, TikTok or Instagram in class right in front of the teacher and still they do not get their phone taken away," she said

Lucia Liberato attempted to transfer to online schooling, because she felt her learning was impacted by the constant use of cellphones in class.
Lucia Liberato attempted to transfer to online schooling, because she felt her learning was impacted by the constant use of cellphones in class.

Lucia Liberato says she attempted to transfer to online schooling because she felt her learning was impacted by the constant use of cellphones in class. (Gillian Liberato )

Liberato's concerns echo calls for change by B.C. United and educational experts, who hope a ban will increase test results and student engagement, as well as reduce cyber bullying.

"It takes away the whole point of going to school and having interactions if everybody is too immersed in the online world," said Liberato, who attempted to transfer to online schooling in hopes of a more enriching educational experience.

"[Banning phones] would increase the amount people learn as well as [students'] mental health."

'They learn less and they perform worse'

On Jan. 8, Kevin Falcon and B.C. United renewed their pledge to ban phones in kindergarten to Grade 12 classrooms, following bans adopted by Quebec in 2023 and Ontario in 2019.

"The evidence is pouring in from around the world that when you allow students to have cellphones in classrooms, they learn less and they perform worse," said Falcon on CBC's On The Coast.

Falcon says he became especially concerned after seeing B.C.'s ranking "behind Alberta" in the 2022 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test taken every three years by 15-year-old students across Canada and in various member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

A report by the Council of Ministers of Education found that while B.C. performed on or above the national average in reading, science and mathematics for PISA, overall scores for Canadian students had declined since 2003.

"For the vast majority of children, we know for a fact that if we can get them to be able to focus on the teacher and their lessons, they will benefit dramatically more," Falcon said.

Cris Rowan, a Sechelt, B.C.-based occupational therapist, says phone use is impacting children's brain development and impacting their focus in class.

"Research is showing that grades are directly related to the number of times you open a text ... even having that phone on the desk is hugely affecting kids."

"We are seeing pruning to the frontal lobes … The brain is going, 'Hey we don't need this area' and away it goes," he said.

Rowan says in his 35 years of working in schools, he's seen a rising concern with youth mental health. He adds constant phone use has created anxiety dependence in students, as well as parents.

"We are in a mental health crisis … that is directly related to cellphones, directly related to social media that kids are viewing on cellphones."

Liberato says banning phones could also reduce opportunities for online bullying.

"A part of having your phone whenever you want is also being able to say whatever you want at any time. Which leads to bullying," she said.

'Helpful' tools for underfunded school

For Kyenta Martins, chair of the Vancouver District Parents Advisory Council, phones are a useful tool to help severely underfunded schools.

"We do not have enough technology for every student … Our school boards have come to depend on cellphones as a tool that students have on them," she said, adding a ban would impose pressures on schools and teachers.

"That is putting more expectations on teachers … If we are going to try and navigate this in a top-heavy way … then we also need to pair that with funding to fill that [education] void."

B.C.'s Education Minister Rachna Singh agreed in a statement that phones are "a helpful learning tool."

"Many school districts already have policies in place restricting cellphone access for students at school. Principals and teachers also have the ability to restrict cellphone use in the classrooms," she said.