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Paul W. Bennett: Our kids need a social media detox—what Canada can learn from France’s school cellphone ban

Commentary

A child holds an iPhone at an Apple store on Sept. 25, 2015 in Chicago. Kiichiro Sato/AP Photo.

France was well ahead of the curve in seeing the growing threat posed by social media to children and teens. Six years ago, France’s Minister of National Education Jean-Michel Blanquer announced plans to banish mobile devices as a “detox measure” to combat classroom distraction and cyberbullying affecting kids. Unlike the vast majority of nations and states, France implemented what is known as a “blanket ban” rather than simply restricting cellphone use in classrooms.

The first country in the West to recognize its potential harms to health, well-being, and academic preparedness, is now going one step further. After commissioning a study conducted by ten experts, the government of Emmanuel Macron is actively considering limiting social media access and exposure to its “toxic” mix of images and messages until children reach the “age of digital majority” ( 15 and up).

“Mobile phones are a technological advance but they cannot monopolize our lives,” Blanquer told LCI news TV channel back in 2018. “You can’t find your way in a world of technology if you can’t read, write, count, respect others, and work in a team.”

From the beginning, the French minister and his department saw the bigger picture. “We know today that there is a phenomenon of screen addiction, the phenomenon of bad mobile phone use,” Blanquer said, according to CNN. “Our main role [in education] is to protect children and adolescents.” Such assessments, uncommon at the time, turned out to be prescient now that excessive cellphone use is widely recognized as a major contributor to the teen mental health crisis.

School authorities in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom treated the French cellphone ban as a European educational aberration or simply dismissed it as a draconian measure that was unenforceable. Judging from the July 2023 UNESCO global technology monitoring study, it has turned out to be the most resilient, and, arguably, most successful policy of any in the world.

Getting it right did not happen overnight, even in France. Since 2010, French schools have been authorized to control and limit mobile devices in class. When the French national law (Law No. 2018-698) was implemented in 2018-19, students from preschool to age 15 were barred from using their devices on school premises (and on school-sponsored activities outside of school grounds), including during recess and lunch periods.

Connecting devices to the internet in school was prohibited in France, but exceptions were made for students with recognized medical conditions and those with learning disabilities. Control and management of the devices were authorized under Education Code L. 511-5, granting “educational establishments” powers of enforcement. Some educators, including UNSA teachers’ union head Stephane Crochet, who claimed that teachers needed phones for emergencies and that imposing restrictions on adult staff was “an insult” were not really heeded, nor recognized in the final regulations.

Over the past year, the pendulum has swung in the direction of restricting cellphones and curbing social media addiction among children and teens.

First came the July 2023 UNESCO report on “Technology in Education” calling schools around the world to introduce restrictions because smartphones were sources of distraction contributing to “poorer student performance” and harmful to teen mental health. While only one out of four countries were on board, UNESCO identified four jurisdictions leading the way: France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Finland. No mention was made of China, which was the Asian pioneer in restricting the use of social media in schools.

Then came Jonathan Haidt’s earth-shaking book, The Anxious Generation (March 2024), alerting the broader public to the impediment of “phone-based childhood” and the mountain of research evidence linking social media obsession to our contemporary child and youth mental health crisis. For those born after 1995, known as “iGen” or Generation Z, turning the devices off let alone being without them can be enough to cause anxiety or even panic.

Imposing bans on cellphones in classrooms, in isolation, in Canada’s provinces, is proving futile, and yet educational authorities still seem wedded to band-aid prescriptions and have shied away from stepping up with blanket bans like that in France.

Four Canadian provinces—Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, and New Brunswick—now have provincial cellphone restrictions either in place or at various stages of implementation. Recently, Nova Scotia’s minister of education telegraphed the news that provincial regulations are in the works, and, out west, the Alberta Teachers’ Association has agreed to collaborate with their provincial government to come up with guidelines.

All of the Canadian provincial initiatives have run into difficulties. First out of the gate was Ontario with PP Memorandum 128 (November 2019), now being revamped for a second run at attempting to rid classrooms of the “weapons of mass distraction.” A few weeks after UNESCO’s July 2023 report, Quebec took the plunge in January 2024 with “restrictions” on use, but—according to students and insiders—it’s not working in high schools.

British Columbia took a decidedly different approach, coupling restrictions for September 2024 with action to remove intimate images from the internet, “pursue predators,” and sue social media companies responsible for harms associated with the use of their products. New Brunswick’s regulatory response, a revision of existing Policy 311, is destined to fall short because it mimics, for the most part, what Ontario attempted from 2019 to the end of 2023.

It’s now dawning upon Quebec Premier Francois Legault that a province-wide restriction on classroom use of mobile devices is being subverted, mostly by older students adept at sneaking in phones or hacking into school networks. Five months into implementation, he’s now proposing a “blanket banmodelled after that of France.

The policy landscape has changed radically over the past few years. Back in September 2017, when American social psychologist Jean M. Twenge dared to ask “Has the smartphone destroyed a generation?” it sounded alarmist. In post-pandemic times, curbing excessive social media use has been recast as one of the most urgent social issues of our time.

Cellphone-free schools are achievable but only if it’s part of a cross-sector movement involving at least three systems: health, education, and social/community services. It will require a concerted, integrated effort comparable to successful public health initiatives eliminating smoking in public places. It’s in everyone’s interest to embrace “cessation” policies to ensure that the rising generation goes on to lead healthier, more active, and productive lives.

Some critics of the global “ban the cellphones” movement are uneasy about entrusting this all to government. Most recently, American economist and online culture commentator Tyler Cowen challenged Jon Haidt in a popular podcast to defend his position on banning cellphones. Haidt’s response: the internet is good, it’s social media that’s bad. We are dealing here with minors, young and vulnerable kids, and total obsession with social media apps has completely disrupted childhood development.

“Social media is very different from everything else,” Haidt pointed out. “Social media is a distorting mirror” where kids get lost and “washed out to sea” trapped in a “phone-based childhood.” In short, it’s reached a crisis point and is now a matter of child protection requiring “collective action” and regulation in some form.

Doubling down on band-aid classroom restrictions won’t work because it’s far bigger than our provincially-managed school systems. A “social media detox” ban like that of France will likely end up being part of the much broader cross-sector approach needed to change the trajectory of the smartphone generation. Our challenge will be to develop policy responses directed at curbing the social media obsession of children without cutting them completely off from the wonders of the internet.

Christopher Dummitt: Four ways Pierre Poilievre and the Conservatives can fight woke ideology

Commentary

People gather during a rally at Simms Park in Courtenay, B.C., June 5, 2020. Jen Osborne/The Canadian Press.

By this point it ought to be clear that a future Pierre Poilievre government—despite Liberal fear-mongering—isn’t going to undo Canada’s widely accepted status quo on things like gay marriage and abortion.

But this leaves us with a question: if older social conservatism is out, what could a modern conservative social policy look like?

A new book by British-based Canadian political scientist Eric Kaufmann shows one possible way forward. For several years now, Kaufmann has been at the forefront of those explaining the takeover of our politics and institutions by woke activists and ideas.

Canada is the canary in the coal mine, an example of what happens when a country gets taken over by woke ideology. Whether it’s legally enshrined discriminatory hiring based on DEI quotas or racially based sentencing in the courts or the wholesale takeover of our schools by progressive woke orthodoxy or the public rituals of national humiliation as we saw with the mass graves moral panic, again and again, Canada has been an international symbol of a country that has shown almost no resistance to this illiberal mind virus that sells itself as progressive.

So far conservative premiers and federal Conservative leaders have largely stood back and allowed it to happen. They seem to fear a possible blowback with the inevitable accusations of racism, sexism, or homophobia.

Kaufmann calls this woke’s “radioactive velvet glove.” It hides its illiberalism under the gauze of liberal ideas of inclusiveness and non-discrimination. But not so fast, Kaufmann says. The new woke issues aren’t like those in the past. Fighting discrimination against women and the LGBT community was part and parcel of good liberalism that goes hand in hand with economic fiscal liberalism.

But on topic after topic, from so-called gender-affirming care for adolescents to discriminatory anti-white or anti-Asian DEI policies, wide swathes of the public are not with the woke elite. And, what’s more, the woke ideas don’t align with good liberal beliefs held dear by most Canadians, conservative and many non-conservative alike.

The real question is: what can be done? What could a Poilievre government do to counteract the woke movement?

Kaufmann outlines a 12-point plan but I’ll simplify it to four points and a coda.