Education and Skills

UNESCO calls for a ban on phones in schools. Here's why

Less than a quarter of schools have currently put a ban on phones.

Less than a quarter of schools have currently put a ban on phones. Image: Unsplash/2y.kang

Charlotte Edmond
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • UNESCO recommends that phones be banned from schools as they distract students and have a negative impact on their learning.
  • Technology in education more broadly only should be used when there is a clear benefit to learning.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Global Coalition for Digital Safety is working to make the online environment safer.

Smartphones need to be banned from classrooms to avoid distracting students and disrupting learning, a new report from UNESCO recommends.

The United Nations’ education, science and culture agency says that even having a phone nearby when notifications are coming through is enough to break students’ concentration, with one study showing that it can take up to 20 minutes to refocus on learning.

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Large-scale international testing data like the Programme for International Student Assessment suggests there is a negative link between excessive technology use and student performance, UNESCO argues in its Global Education Monitoring report.

Figure illustrating the percentage of poorest households owning radios, televisions and mobile phones.
Far more people own phones than own televisions or radios. Image: UNESCO

Proximity to a phone was found to have a negative impact on learning in 14 countries. And removing smartphones from schools in Belgium, Spain and the UK improved learning outcomes, according to studies cited in the report. But less than a quarter of schools have banned them.

There needs to be clear guidelines for technology’s use in educational settings to ensure it avoids harm to students’ health and to society at large, says UNESCO. And countries need to make it clearer which technology devices are allowed in schools and which are not.

Technology – but not in excess

The report recommends that technology as a whole should only be used in classrooms when it supports learning outcomes: “Some technology can support some learning in some contexts, but not when it is over-used or inappropriately used,” the body says.

Since the pandemic, there has been an influx of technology into the classroom in many settings. However, this technology should “support, but never supplant, the human connection on which teaching and learning are based”.

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As well as being distracting, digital technology can take away human contact and, unregulated, can invade privacy and stoke hatred, says the report. Just a handful of countries explicitly guarantee data privacy in education by law. And the majority of governments that provided online education during the pandemic “fostered uses that risked or infringed on children’s rights”.

Higher screen time has been associated with poorer wellbeing; less curiosity, self-control and emotional stability; higher anxiety; and depression diagnoses, according to research the report leans on.

Children under 18 should only be allowed to use smartphones for a maximum of two hours a day, according to the Cyberspace Administration of China. The regulator is also proposing the implementation of "minor mode" programs that would restrict internet access for the country’s under-18 users – from 10pm-6am. Time limits would also be set by providers.

Figure showing the population covered by mobile networks, world and low income.
Half of people in lower-income countries own a phone. Image: UNESCO

The technology divide

Mobile phone ownership globally is uneven, as is access to technology more broadly, which exacerbates unequal learning. Almost three-quarters of over-10s worldwide own one, but in low-income countries this falls to under half. It is also estimated that 9% fewer women than men own a mobile phone.

Just 40% of primary schools worldwide have internet access, and it would cost $1 billion a day to maintain connectivity for education in poor countries, the report says. But even if it was possible to maintain connectivity, there are still questions to be answered about whether digital technology is always the best tool to deliver effective learning, particularly given research about the impact of excessive screen time.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Coalition for Digital Safety brings together leaders with the aim of accelerating public-private cooperation to tackle harmful content and conduct online. Together, the coalition has developed the Global Principles on Digital Safety, which aim to help build a safe, trusted and inclusive online environment.

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