Legislating on the use of mobile phones in schools – a French story?

The French government recently adopted, under the supervision of Minister of National Education Jean-Michel Blanquer, a law prohibiting the use of smartphones in elementary and middle schools. Below, the French Safer Internet Centre (SIC) reviews the law, its implementation, and answers some practical questions parents and teachers may have, while at the same time reflecting on the effectiveness and relevance of such a measure.

After reviewing the content of the law and underlining in which political context it was passed, this article will propose a report after one year of implementation. Then, as part of a pragmatic approach we will question whether this type of law is the only option for schools when it comes to facing the challenge of digital.

The context of smartphone use amongst French children and teenagers

According to a survey conducted by Junior Connect 2018 and Baromètre CREDOC Numérique 2017

  • children aged 1 to 6 spend on average 4:30 per week on the internet;
  • children aged 7 to 12 spend on average 6:10 per week on the internet;
  • and young people aged 13 to 19 spend on average 15:11 per week on the internet.

In addition, it appears that

  • 97 per cent of children aged 10 to 14 play video games (but the player's average age is 39);
  • 84 per cent of young people aged 13 to 19 own a smartphone;
  • 24 per cent of children aged 7 to 12 own a smartphone;
  • and 64 per cent of young people aged 11 to 18 have a digital device permanently with them (35 per cent wake up to consult it).

A symbolic law

A part of Emmanuel Macron's presidential campaign manifesto, this law banning mobile phones in schools has been widely criticised, while at the same time earning a reputation for working very well – a French paradox.

Since the fall of 2018, mobile phones have been banned in all schools, from elementary to middle school. French Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer sees this law as a way to improve the school climate and to reinforce the attention of pupils in class; still, it has received much criticism, particularly from within the National Education administration.

What the law says and how it is applied

Adopted by the National Assembly on 31 July 2018, this new law states that "the use of a mobile phone or other electronic terminal communication equipment by a student is prohibited in the kindergartens, elementary schools and middle schools, and during any activity related to teaching that takes place outside their precincts". Depending on the "location and circumstances" and with the express authorisation of the rules of procedure, exceptions may be accepted (especially for children with disabilities). Note that this law prohibits not only phones, but also all devices connected to the internet, therefore including tablets, smart watches, and so on.

The law aims to regulate the use of mobile phones in primary and secondary schools. It appears to be a revision of the rules of procedure and provides school headmasters with a legal component to build on. Teachers who once had no right to confiscate phones can do it now. Thus, confiscation and punishment could now take place in a "structured" manner.

The Minister highlights several educational issues, but also underlines the following improvements in school life:

  • It should promote and foster better attention, concentration and reflection, essential to guarantee pupils understand and memorise what is taught to them.
  • This prohibition reinforces opportunities for exchange between pupils in order to foster a harmonious socialisation, essential to children's development. It is a good way of fighting against incivility in schools and exposure to shocking, violent or pornographic images.

Practical questions around the law

Can kids come to school with their phone even if they do not use it?

Yes, because it is not the possession of the mobile phone that is prohibited, but its use. The main thing is this: each school has to choose how to implement the measure. Most of them required children to turn off their phone, while the wealthiest schools installed lockers to drop the phones off upon arrival in the morning.

Are there exceptions?

Yes, for children with disabilities who may need to use their equipment as medical device. The rules of procedure may also define for which educational uses the phone may be authorised. Moreover, "the use of mobile phones in boarding schools is prohibited by law, unless otherwise stated in the internal regulations of the institution" said a public note published by the Minister of Education. Thus, in the majority of boarding schools, students are allowed to use their mobile phone only during a set time slot in the evening.

Is the phone banned during school field trips?

Yes, as well as during sports sessions in the gym. Regarding school trips, if the ban remains the rule, time slots for use of the phone may be defined by the rules of procedure.

What to do if kids must imperatively contact their parents during the day?

"Schools can provide specific places where students can reach their parents" explains the note made by the institution.

What about teachers? Is the phone also prohibited?

Of course not, but they will have to make "a reasonable use of their communication devices, to allow students to take ownership of the measure" says the vademecum.

What happens if a student breaks the rules?

The student's cellphone will be confiscated, at most for the day. And the school will also be free to set other penalties: "in middle school, the confiscation of the mobile phone may be associated with another school punishment such as an extra duty or a detention time".

A contrasted balance

The "positive" – A law that restores order

From the door of the school, the children are instructed to turn off and put away their phones. Even if lots of reminders are needed, this rule is often considered as simple and quite effective. In addition, some headmasters stress the fact that since this law came into application, there has been a better climate in schools.

Initially, some students said they were bored during breaks, but others saw benefits. Indeed, some take advantage of this time available to share more activities with their friends. It works only if the adults are committed not to leave the kids by themselves, if they organise activities during the long break at midday for instance.

The "negative" – An already-existing measure

The political opposition considers this law as a useless measure, denouncing a mere "PR operation" and a "law of circumstance" because most institutions had already implemented this prohibition. Indeed, on 12 July 2010, the French "Code of Education" had prohibited phone uses in "any teaching activity and in the places provided by the rules of procedure", however this text did not have the means to propose "a framework or sanctions". It is perhaps worth noting that the law of 2010 was adopted by a Minister who was advised by… Jean-Michel Blanquer, the current Minister of Education.

When legislating is not enough – A law for sole perspective for schools?

In search of a global coherence?

This can seem like a lack of coherence within the National Education administration. But it can also be underlined that decision-makers are searching for solutions like everybody else in the field: from researchers in academia to parents at home. This lack of coherence is just the same as anywhere else in the digital education environment. On the one hand, mobile phones are more or less banned in schools. On the other, digital education is an integral part of the course of study for many subjects, with technical skills (coding), media literacy, and internet searching, for example.

Besides, the use of digital devices in schools is not totally outlawed. Year after year, schools are more and more equipped with digital tablets, interactive boards and so on and digital tools can also be used for educational purposes.

There are departments within the Ministry of National Education that are entirely dedicated to digital education. Those departments are mentioned in the official document to help headmasters implement the new law in their schools. They have organised professional fairs with all the actors in digital education, they fight against online harassment all year round with direct help of the Minister, and even of the French First Lady, who is herself a former teacher with a special interest in the subject.

Depending on who you deal with, there are either people saying banning phones is a proper solution or people struggling for a larger use of digital tools in education. And, somewhat trapped in the middle of those two antagonistic positions, there is the large majority of teachers who are mainly suffering from a lack of training: some of them simply do not know how to implement digital technologies in their lessons. They do not feel comfortable enough with digital tools to use them confidently in a classroom. In that case, the easy answer can be: let's ban.

Thinking about training, thinking about the positive aspects of digital in education requires long term decisions and investments.
We should also be aware that the schools' means of actions are not unlimited. As often, the essential responsibility lies with the family. The challenge for digital educators is how to transition between school and home digital environments.

Thus, in coming month, a key challenge for the awareness branch of the French Safer Internet Centre will be digital parenting.

Find out more information about the work of the French Safer Internet Centre (SIC) generally, including its awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services on the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) portal, or find similar information for Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe.

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