Walk into any high school classroom these days and there's a high probability one of the students will be texting, surfing the internet or playing games on his or her cellphone.

About 85 per cent of Canadian high school students have a mobile phone, but two economics researchers have concluded cellphones are distracting in class. Their research paper concludes high school students score higher marks when cellphones are banned.

The research began in England when Richard Murphy was at the London School of Economics. Murphy is now an assistant professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin.

He and Louis-Philippe Beland, an assistant professor of economics at Louisiana State University, looked at the marks of students at 91 high schools in four British cities: London, Birmingham, Leicester and Manchester.

Says Murphy, "We found that once a school implements a strong ban on mobile phones, test scores of 16-year-olds increase the next year. They increase by 6.41 per cent of the standard deviation, which might be hard to conceptualize, but that would be equivalent to increasing the school year by one week or increasing the school week by one hour."

Under the ban on cellphones, students were also two per cent more likely to pass the required exams at the end of high school.

Murphy says it's also interesting to see which students benefitted most from the ban. Those students who tended to struggle in school increased their marks by the greatest margin.

"We think this is implying that maybe phones are very distracting. And maybe the low-achieving students are the ones that are most likely to be distracted by phones or using phones in class. Which is why when you ban phones, these are the students that gain the most," he said.

Lynn Moulton

Vice Principal at Halifax West High School, Lynn Moulton, says about four years ago, her school changed its policy on cellphones because dealing with students using their phones was eating up too much time. (Contributed)

Murphy thinks implementing a ban on cellphones could be an easy way of leveling the playing field between high-achieving and low-achieving students.

The idea is largely being given the thumbs down by educators and students in Halifax.

Says Lynn Moulton, a vice principal at Halifax West High School, "Good luck with that. It's not going to happen."

Moulton says about four years ago, Halifax West changed its policy on cellphones because dealing with students using their phones was eating up too much time.

"Under the old system, we did have no cellphones at all in the building from the beginning of the day until the end. And I became the cellphone police," she said.

"So I would go out at the end of the day with an armload of cellphones with names attached to them for the secretary to distribute to students. And the other vice principals did the same. It became a very big part of the day and we felt that it wasn't a very good use of our time."

Moulton also says the ban simply forced students to sneak their phones into school and secretly use them.
"They were pocket texting. They were purse texting. They became very adept at doing things under tables," she said. "We didn't feel that was a very useful way for us to spend our time. We didn't think it was good for them and we figured they were going to use their phones anyway. So why not teach them how to be responsible with their cellphones?"

Halifax West now has a policy where students are allowed to use their cellphones in the hallways and in the cafeteria. They can also use them in the classroom at the teacher's discretion.

It's the same at Citadel High School, in downtown Halifax. Principal Wade Smith says there's little point to implementing a ban.

"No principal I know wants to die on the hill of "no cell phones." So the reality is we have to find ways to allow students to use them properly," he said. "They're here. They're not going anywhere. Students use them. Staff use them. That's our main form of communication as principals. So on a certain level, it's a little bit hypocritical to expect such a natural component of our society, in the way that the cell phone has evolved, to think that we can't find a way to use it effectively."

cell phone

Halifax West now has a policy where students are allowed to use their cellphones in the hallways and in the cafeteria. They can also use them in the classroom at the teacher's discretion. (www.freshlytechy.com)

Smith says many students find it handy to watch their Twitter feed during the day. The guidance department will tweet out information about course registration or graduation.

Moulton says cellphones can also be handy in class.

"If a teacher puts a drawing up on the board or a diagram, students [may] want to take a picture of it instead of trying to copy it. Some students aren't good copiers," she explained. "So it translates very nicely when you take a photo and then you're able to study."

Moulton says students can also share their notes with other students and there are times in class when the teacher can't answer a question.

"The teacher will then say, 'Who has their cellphone with them? Let's look it up on Google. Let's see what information we can find.' So students are being taught to use their cellphones with respect and to use them for the purpose that we would like them to use them for, which is their education," she said.

Many students also insist it would be impossible to give up their cellphone, even for a portion of the day.

'A pointless exercise'

Grade 12 Citadel High student Liam Scanlon says, "I think students use their phones a lot in class to text their friends. But they also use it a lot to look up information about the class."

"You used to have to go to a library to look something up, now, you can just get out your smartphone and find the answer to pretty much any question."

Fifteen-year-old Kevin McLeod says trying to ban cellphones would be a pointless exercise.

"No one would ever follow that rule," he said. "We'd just keep on using them. We'd just hide them."

McLeod says texting is his preferred method of communication. He says he texts his friends more than he talks to them.
"Being around friends makes me anxious so I just find it easier to text them instead of going out with them and talking to them. It's just easier," he explained.

Chris Duvar and Liam Mazerolle at Halifax West agree that cellphones are "a part of life."

"Ya, they really are," says Duvar. "People just like, pull out their cellphones and it's like, 'Oh man, this is funny, I should tell that person that.'  People on the spur of the moment think, 'I should tell people this.'  And then they start doing it."

Mazerolle says cellphones are the main way young people share information.

"I mean, there's no other way to get it to people other than texting or calling so why not have it on hand?" he asked. 

And Mazerolle says even if his friends are standing right in front of him, "I might even still text them then!"