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New Brunswick child and youth advocate suggests schools be cellphone-free zones

FREDERICTON — Parent and teacher groups in New Brunswick welcomed the child and youth advocate's recent suggestion that the province ban cellphones from schools because of their effect on students' mental health and ability to concentrate.
New Brunswick's child and youth advocate has suggested schools in the province be cellphone-free zones. A person uses a cellphone in Ottawa on Monday, July 18, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

FREDERICTON — Parent and teacher groups in New Brunswick welcomed the child and youth advocate's recent suggestion that the province ban cellphones from schools because of their effect on students' mental health and ability to concentrate.

Kelly Lamrock told a legislative committee last week that cellphone use also prevents students from being able to properly analyze material and make detailed arguments.

"I'm even noticing in classes I teach or sometimes volunteer (in) as a debate coach, the ability to make longer arguments is diminishing greatly among young people ... I think that's sort of social media habit," he told the committee.

Over the past five years, he said, the number of children in New Brunswick seeking urgent medical care for depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation has gone up between 28 and 40 per cent. He said the decline in health among youth can be linked to what they are being exposed to online.

"How many children today are processing really terrifying and worrisome world events, sitting up at 2 a.m. with their phone in their hand with sources of information who may not be good-faith actors," Lamrock said. "They see tons of conflict, very little arbitration and explanation." 

Chris Collins, executive director for Canadian Parents for French, New Brunswick, said his group would support restricting cellphone access in schools, as long as the policy goes through a "proper" consultation process.

"Cellphones are a massive benefit from a convenience perspective, but they need to be regulated in schools," Collins said. "It'll be a tough adjustment for a while ... But we have to regulate it with education in mind, with the social aspects and the negative implications of cellphone use in schools as well." 

Anglophone East District Education Council member Kristin Cavoukian said a number of teachers are concerned about the distraction and disruption caused by cellphones.

"I found with every passing year, attention spans (among students) seems to be getting shorter," she said. "And the degree to which students can seem to be distracted, you know, constantly looking at their phones, say in the middle of a lecture, I find that it's affecting attention spans."

Cavoukian noted that well-funded schools with an appropriate number of tablets and computers would not need students to bring in their smartphones. Parents who need to speak with their children can call the school, she added.

It's also hard to monitor children's screen time when they have cellphones at school, which could lead to higher incidences of bullying and sextortion, she said. "I understand why kids want to bring them to school. But that's not reason enough for us to allow it — just because they want to bring it."

Diana Chavez, spokeswoman for New Brunswick's Education Department, said that at this time, schools are responsible for developing their own guidelines.

Asked to respond to Lamrock's testimony at the legislature, Chavez said in an emailed statement that the department "recognizes that as society acclimatizes to more technologies and increased connectivity, the school system must foster the development of good ethics and cyber citizenship of students and school personnel regarding the use of technology."

Quebec, British Columbia and Ontario already restrict access to cellphones in schools. 

At last week's legislature hearing, Progressive Conservative member Dorothy Shephard asked Lamrock what role he thought government had to play in regulating what children see on their phones.

The federal government, he said, could regulate such things as algorithms — systems that govern what content is displayed on social media sites. The province could ensure students are taught how those algorithms work, he added.

Sachin Maharaj, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa's faculty of education, said the problems cellphones cause in the classroom make it more difficult for teachers to teach.

"We're seeing that show up in, for example, the number of teachers who are either leaving teaching or the difficulty that schools are having in recruiting and keeping teachers," he said.

"So not having enough teachers to staff schools and, I think, in terms of the climate of how hard it is to get students to learn, how hard it is to control student behaviour and that sort of stuff, phones are playing a role in making it that much more difficult."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 20, 2024.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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