England is joining many countries in proposing a blanket ban on mobile phones in schools, based on the belief that it will greatly improve student behaviour and attention during lessons. Recent guidance from the Department for Education aims to aid headteachers in implementing this ban effectively.
It isn’t the first time that the government has proposed a ban to combat a harmful habit. So, let’s see what schools can learn from one of the most impactful examples of this…
The lessons we learned from the smoking ban
In the late 1970s, smoking cigarettes was so commonplace that 40% of the population smoked. Something had to change to combat it. Several advertising campaigns were launched to educate the public in order to get them to change their minds about smoking. This targeted both teens with Superman comics featuring him battling “Nick O'Teen”, who was trying to recruit teenagers to take up smoking, and adults who faced more harder hitting campaigns, with the Health Education Council producing posters stating “You can’t scrub your lungs clean”.
The results were overwhelming successful. The percentage of people smoking dropped significantly between 1982 and 1994, from 35% to 27%. The ongoing education about the benefits of not smoking, along with the risks of not giving up, improved.
But from 1994 to 2006, smoking levels stayed frustratingly and persistently stubborn. A hardcore group of smokers remained and during this twelve-year period, the rate of people smoking cigarettes only dropped by one percentage point. That all changed from 2006 onwards.
The 2006 Health Act introduced into law that smoking would be banned in pubs, and took effect in 2007. Combining the knowledge of the benefits of not smoking with a change to smokers’ physical environment quickly had a huge positive effect. In the fifteen years that followed, the proportion of smokers was halved, down from 26% to 13%.
How does this apply to banning mobile phones in schools?
There is a big difference between knowing the cost of something and actually changing one’s behaviour. We are not completely rational and logical. We are creatures of habit. Of course, educating about the costs of mobile phones may help change attitudes and behaviours of some students. These are our low hanging fruit. But, just as with smoking, for those for whom the behaviour is so ingrained, a change of environment (as well as the education) is required.
By removing the distraction, we effectively make the choice for students. Given that they are at a young and impressionable age, asking them to have the willpower to overcome the sophisticated technology of Silicon Valley is a stretch too far.
What the smoking ban teaches us is that by changing the environment whilst also educating about the negative consequences, we can help ingrain habits. This way, when they are older, students can make more informed choices without having to overcome years of bad habits as well.
A quick recap of the negative impact of excessive mobile phone use
Here are some, but certainly not all, of the research that has explored why this matters – excessive mobile phone use can cause:
- Lower concentration – Research has suggested that mobile phones can reduce students’ concentration.
- Reduced well-being – Excessive mobile phone use has been liked to poor psychological health, increased anxiety, feelings of loneliness and even low self-esteem.
- Lesser-quality sleep – The use of electronic devices before going to sleep reduces the release of melatonin (the sleep hormone), which influences the quality and quantity of sleep.
- Poorer delayed gratification – Studies have found that individuals who have a greater level of mobile phone use experience a shorter attention span and a greater level of impulsivity.
- Reduced social skills – Break and lunch are an important part of the school day. Research suggests that those who have their phones out during mealtime are 7% more distracted and rate their experience 5.45% less interesting than those without their phones.
We have now seen that it is not enough to tell students about these negative impacts. When it comes to behaviour change, it needs to be a combination of knowledge plus a conducive environment. That is why recent news of this ban on mobile phones in English schools is such welcome news, following the step of countries like Finland, France, Australia and the Netherlands.