Earthquakes are making Japan think twice about banning smartphones in schools

An earthquake simulation drill in Tokyo: Got your smartphone?
An earthquake simulation drill in Tokyo: Got your smartphone?
Image: Reuters/Toru Hanai
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To allow or not to allow smartphones in schools, that is the question. Educators around the world are struggling with this issue as it becomes increasingly obvious that mobile devices, the most practical of distractions, are deeply entrenched in our postmodern lives and are not going away anytime soon. Earthquake-prone Japan is no exception.

In Tokyo, mobile devices were banned altogether in elementary and junior high schools in 2009, and have been prohibited in high school classrooms. These limitations are finally being lifted due to safety concerns, the local board of education announced on June 20, according to the Japan Times.

The move comes after officials in the prefecture of Osaka rethought their ban on devices in schools last year. In June 2018, an earthquake rocked the region during morning commute hours, and the utility of cellphones then prompted the local government to lift its prohibition on the devices in educational institutions serving young students. In May, officials in Tokyo commissioned a report to assess whether the same action would be practical in the nation’s capital and concluded that it was, based on the prevalence of smartphones among students and their usefulness in emergency situations.

A study last year found that more than 97% of Japanese high school students already use smartphones. This means that in cases of emergency, the vast majority of teens could be located and accounted for via their devices. Now, principals at each municipal high school and junior high school will have to determine specific rules for their institutions and communicate the new guidelines to students. While some may allow smartphones in classrooms, others are free to choose to limit device use to commutes and can continue to prohibit them during lesson times.

Japan is not alone in its effort to contend with the contradictions of student smartphone use. However, its recent decisions run counter to the direction of some governments.

In France, classroom smartphone use for students ages three to 15 was banned last year. The measure was passed enthusiastically by a vote of 62 to one. “We know today that there is a phenomenon of screen addiction…Our main role is to protect children and adolescents. It is a fundamental role of education, and this law allows it,” education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer told French news channel BFMTV about the legislation.

However, some criticized the measure as unnecessary, as France banned all smartphone use in classrooms—except for pedagogical use—in 2010. “This isn’t a 21st-century law in our eyes, but a law from the era of news channels and binary debate,” said former teacher Alexis Corbière, a deputy from the left-wing Unbowed France party, according to a CNN report.

In California, Democratic assemblyman Al Muratsuchi of Torrance introduced a school smartphone bill (paywall) in March that would allow administrators to limit technology in schools. It would require local school boards to formulate policies on cellphone use on school grounds but will not dictate the rules, allowing administrators to reach their own conclusions.

“To the extent that smartphones are becoming too much of a distraction in the classroom, I think every school community needs to have that conversation as to when is too much of a good thing getting in the way of educational and social development,” Muratsuchi said after introducing the bill. He noted, too, that many school districts have already had these discussions and formulated such limitations.

In Australia, the New South Wales government also decided to limit cellphones in schools last year. After a review led by psychologists considered 14,000 survey responses and 80 written submissions, local officials determined that primary school kids will be barred from using smartphones in school to reduce bullying and sharing of explicit images. High schools have the option of deciding whether to participate in the ban and to what extent.

Education minister Rob Stokes noted that cellphones can be educational, “But they can also be dangerous and be a distraction.” ABC News Australia reported that the minister wasn’t concerned that students would respond negatively to the change, explaining that many complaints about the technology actually came from the youth themselves, who claimed the devices were distracting.