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An Outright Ban on Cellphones Means Giving Up on Education [Opinion]

April 29, 2024 - ColumnasDestacado
In the digital age, prohibiting is not protecting. This column reflects on the need to adopt a comprehensive educational approach rather than banning the use of cellphones in schools. Addressing the challenges and opportunities offered by technology requires the active participation of the educational community and regulations focused on protecting the rights of children and adolescents online.

By Magdalena Claro, Director of the Center for Studies in Education Policy and Practice, UC; and Luis Enrique Santana, Director of the Fostering Digital Citizenship Program, UAI

“I’m 23 years old on Instagram!” a 12-year-old student tells us with a laugh. “But how if you don’t have a phone?” they ask. “Well, I have my account on my cousin’s phone with an email that my parents don’t know about.” Another student of similar age: “I used to get bullied on Instagram, it was girls from another school.” A third student, from another school: “If I don’t understand something in math, I don’t care, because in the afternoon I can look it up on YouTube and then I can understand it at my own pace.”

These experiences linked to the risks and opportunities of the Internet are not isolated, but common to observe for those of us who research education. It is crucial, then, to take them into account in the legislative discussion that seeks to ban cell phones in schools. There are two essential reasons to oppose a total ban:

First, we will not achieve the intended goal. For example, it does not prevent bullying or harassment, since students’ digital experience today transcends the walls of the school. The problem of banning it from school is that we give up on educationally guiding its use and leave that task only to the family. This causes inequalities in the support that students have to learn to make responsible, positive and self-care-based use of it.

Second, a total ban does not eliminate distraction in class either. A student who knows that they can review the content at home can be distracted in class with the freedom of being able to search for that content later. But does that student know how to discern the quality of their “self-education”? Wouldn’t it be better to guide from the classroom the critical use of the information they find on the Internet to learn?

The testimony of teachers and principals is clear in confirming that the presence of cell phones in school is conflictive. But if we fail to reach agreements and define the rules of the game for a positive and responsible use within the educational community, where do we do it then? We cannot give up on educating so that children grow up in autonomy and are competent adults in all areas, including digital ones. We must both recognize and address the risks while also making the most of the opportunities they offer.

Unlike what happens in the face-to-face world, in the digital world prohibiting does not imply caring or protecting, because the possibility of accessing digital content and relationships goes beyond the device on duty. Today it is cell phones, tomorrow it will be smart watches, and the day after tomorrow a device even more invisible and difficult to control. Let’s not put legislative energy into short-term and superficial measures, let’s address the root problems. If we really want to address these risks, regulation should not target the device itself, but the commercial platforms that offer these services so that they ensure the protection of children’s rights and carry out designs appropriate for the age and for schools to have a digital education.

Parents, mothers and caregivers must get involved not only by controlling online time, but by critically guiding their children’s digital experience. At the same time, they should not forget to safeguard development spaces that we do know have a positive impact on health, learning and general well-being: sports, getting enough sleep and sharing socially with family and friends.

Management teams must update their protocols to regulate positive and negative uses in accordance with their educational project and to take advantage of their potential. To do this, it is essential to provide support for the development of teaching skills and to facilitate spaces for making definitions at the pedagogical and formative level within the educational communities.

We cannot give up on educating.

(Extended version of the original column published in La Tercera, April 27, 2024)