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Alicia Planincic: Be warned, Canada—this recession indicator is blinking bright red

Commentary

A “Now Hiring” sign is displayed on the wall of a business Tuesday, May 30, 2023 in Montreal. Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press.

In each EconMinute, Business Council of Alberta economist Alicia Planincic seeks to better understand the economic issues that matter to Canadians: from business competitiveness to housing affordability to living standards and our country’s lack of productivity growth. She strives to answer burning questions, tackle misconceptions, and uncover what’s really going on in the Canadian economy.

The labour market is an important sign of the health of Canada’s economy. Recently, it has been described as cooling off, as the unemployment rate increased slightly in May. But, because most experts see this as a good sign, giving the Bank of Canada permission to continue to lower interest rates, hardly anyone has raised alarm bells. In fact, talk of a recession, and angsty Google searches, have all but fallen away.

But should we be worried?

U.S. economist Claudia Sahm created a rule of thumb—called the Sahm Rule—for when an increase in unemployment is more than just a minor adjustment but instead signals an economic downturn. The rule goes that if the current unemployment rate is significantly higher than the lowest rate seen over the past year, it means we’re in the early stages of a recession. In Canada, this trigger point is around 0.6, and using the rule retroactively has only ever incorrectly signaled a recession one time.

Unfortunately for Canada, the Sahm Rule suggests that, at 0.97, the recession warning light is blinking red.

And, though there are some regional differences, this warning sign is largely flashing across provinces. Specifically, provincial estimates show:

  • Seven provinces are signaling the early stages of a recession.
  • The signal is most alarming in Ontario, where the number sits at 1.4.
  • Interestingly, Alberta—with the fastest population growth and the highest expected economic growth this year—comes in second at 1.13.
  • Meanwhile, a few provinces have seen an increase in unemployment but are still below the trigger point: B.C., Nova Scotia, and P.E.I.

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

Month to month, it can be easy to overlook just how much the labour market has weakened. But as the Sahm Rule makes clear, today’s labour market is not the same place of plentiful job opportunity it once was, and in most provinces the scale of the turnaround is concerning. While a recession would certainly give the Bank of Canada permission to further lower rates, cheaper debt hardly beats having a job.

That said, Sahm herself has emphasized that the rule can be broken and, in fact, already has. So, while it’s important not to dismiss the current turnaround in the labour market as simply expected or necessary, we’d also be wise to consider if or why this rule no longer holds.

 This post was originally published by the Business Council of Alberta at businesscouncilab.com

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.