United Nations calls for a global ban on smartphones in schools

Jarrod Brown
Jarrod Brown

A UN report has called for a global ban on smartphones in schools to tackle classroom disruption, improve learning, and protect students’ privacy data.

The recommendations come from the 2023 Global Education Monitoring Report published Wednesday by UNESCO, which analysed global policies on technology use in classrooms and a host of studies about how screens and social media affect young people.

Manos Antoninis, the Director responsible for producing the report, said the call for a smartphone ban was the first step in making digital technology “subservient to a human-centred vision” of education. 

“We need to learn about our past mistakes when using technology in education so that we do not repeat them in the future,” he said in an interview with UN News

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“We need to teach children to live both with and without technology; to take what they need from the abundance of information, but to ignore what is not necessary; to let technology support, but never supplant human interactions in teaching and learning”.

According to the report, almost one in four countries worldwide has introduced a ban on smartphone use in schools. 

Some countries like Bangladesh and Singapore have banned smartphone use in class, but not in school. Others have been more surgical, banning specific applications from education settings due to concerns over student privacy. 

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“Not all change constitutes progress”

If left with unregulated access, UNESCO argues that smartphones can wreak havoc on students’ classroom engagement and severely impact their ability to learn.

Studies in Belgium, Spain and the United Kingdom cited in the report found that students’ learning outcomes improved when phones were removed from the classroom, especially for students who were already struggling.

According to the report, incoming notifications or the mere proximity of a mobile device were enough to distract students from the task at hand, with another study showing it took students up to 20 minutes to refocus on learning once their attention had drifted.

UNESCO also showed concerns over cyber safety, finding that only 16 per cent of countries explicitly guaranteed data privacy in education by law. 

One analysis found that 89 per cent of 163 education technology products recommended during the pandemic could survey children. Further, 39 of 42 governments providing online education during the pandemic “fostered uses that risked or infringed on children’s rights”.

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Rachel Harper, a primary school principal in Ireland who banned smartphones in her school, told UNESCO, “We saw children as young as nine years old requesting smartphones, and it was evident that these children were not emotionally ready to navigate the complexities of these devices and the digital world.”

Both Denmark and France have already banned Google Workspace out of concern for digital privacy, while Germany banned Microsoft products in some states. Some schools and universities have also banned TikTok in the United States.

“The digital revolution holds immeasurable potential but, just as warnings have been voiced for how it should be regulated in society, similar attention must be paid to the way it is used in education,” warned UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.  

“Its use must be for enhanced learning experiences and for the well-being of students and teachers, not to their detriment. Online connections are no substitute for human interaction.”

This report comes only weeks after Queensland’s Education Minister Grace Grace announced a “blanket ban” on smartphones in schools starting in 2024, bringing the state’s policies in line with the rest of Australia’s education sector.

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Jarrod Brown combines his background in journalism, copywriting and digital marketing with a lifelong passion for storytelling. Jarrod established his journalism career working on the education news and information site The Bursar. He lives on the Sunshine Coast - usually found glued to the deck of a surfboard.