Josh Freed: We take cellphones from students, but not from ourselves

Cells in school are really a microcosm of a larger social phenomenon that affects us all.

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Quebec is going to ban cellphones from all public schools because students use them during class, instead of paying attention.

It’s a sensible idea. It can’t be easy for teachers to face down classrooms where everyone’s staring at their screens, instead of at the person teaching.

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In fact, 92 per cent of teachers supported a phone ban in a 2023 Quebec poll. They know giving a history talk will never compete with videos on TikTok.

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Yet cells in school are really a microcosm of a larger social phenomenon that affects us all. It’s the changing etiquette and everywhere-ness of phones in our lives.

For starters, the whole protocol around phones has transformed. We used to tell teenagers it was rude to keep glancing at their cellphones, when we were sitting right there talking to them.

But now that’s as likely to happen with your best friend, spouse, or 85-year-old mother who may prefer watching whatever’s flashing on their screens to listening to you.

Meanwhile, you’re probably glancing at your phone too, every time it buzzes with an alert from another scammer pretending to be your bank cancelling your credit card.

As well, the basic function of a phone has changed in recent years. They’re not actually phones anymore. They’re electronic Swiss Army knives that can do almost anything. They distract us, connect us and hold our lives together.

Like most people’s phones, mine is also:

a) My newspaper stand, encyclopedia, mailbox and Google language translator.

b) My weather forecaster, GPS, music player, calendar, clock, electronic wallet and online research source for spontaneous questions like: “Is an orca whale heavier than a snow truck?”

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c) My online bank, internet shopping centre, parking payment app and the only way to unlock my Bixi bikes.

But mostly I use my phone as a camera, or a flashlight to read menus in dark restaurants and bars.

Sure, I sometimes use my phone as a phone too, but I’m a relic from another century. For many of today’s young that’s a rare phone function, reserved largely for calling parents who don’t know how to text chat with them via Facebook, Instagram, WeChat, Snapchat, WhatsApp, or WhateverApp they use.

Honestly, do you think any students are using their phone to make phone calls in class?

Kid 1: Hello? Is that Jamie in Row 3? Can you lend me an eraser?

Jamie: What’s an eraser?

Lately, many people don’t even answer their phone when you call, because they want you to text. Don’t bother leaving a voice message, because no one listens to those anymore, for fear you might ask them to phone back.

Many young people are actually anxious about talking on the phone, because they can’t edit their words carefully and manage their image, as they can in written messages.

Having a real conversation can be scary, filled with horrible awkward silences. Also, what if you call a friend and the mom answers, so you don’t know whether to say “Hi Miss Johnson” or “Hi Mrs. Johnson?”

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About the only time many young people use a phone as a phone anymore, is when they borrow someone else’s phone to call their own missing phone.

Ultimately, phones have now become minicomputers, hypnotic distractions that let us kill time and tune out life around us.

We gaze at them at bus stops, in store queues, in cabs and even at movies and live shows, distracting ourselves by driving those nearby to distraction.

We use them to ignore whatever’s going on around us. So it’s not surprising kids also use them in classrooms to tune out their teachers.

That’s why Quebec will prohibit phones in class, starting next year. Many schools elsewhere have already separated students from their cells, often by locking them up in sealed pouches for the school day.

To be fair, students and especially boys have always needed something to do in class for distraction. In my day we threw erasers or crumpled paper messages at each other — an early version of email — when teachers weren’t looking.

If you’d polled teachers back then, I’m guessing 92 per cent would have wanted to ban crumpled paper and erasers. Or at least lock them in sealed pouches.

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But back then there was only so much time we could spend throwing things before we got bored and eventually paid attention to the teacher.

Whereas today’s phones have infinite distractions for students, just as they do for us adults.

I’ll bet that after the school ban goes into effect, teachers will still be glued to their phones, texting with friends, reading news or playing online games, while phoneless students are writing exams or papers.

So while I definitely support getting phones out of students’ hands during class, I also think we should get them out of everyone’s hands more of the time — including mine.

Frankly, that last idea is already making me nervous. I think I’ll go relax by listening to some Spotify music and watching cat videos, while sending out texts and reading the online sports news.

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