France’s phone hang-up is a conversation starter

Smartphones have undermined everyday social interactions by eroding our ability and desire to talk to one another

Robert PriceFrench legislators recently passed a law banning children between three and 15 from using smartphones in class. The government of President Emmanuel Macron said the move will help combat an epidemic of screen addiction among France’s children.

At first glance, it looks as if the legislation will help to curb screen addiction. Even if it doesn’t, let’s see similar laws passed in Canada’s provinces. Smartphones don’t belong in the classroom.

Passing such a law wouldn’t be the first time that government outlawed addictive substances from classrooms. In the 1960s, professors smoked wizardly pipes while lecturing to chain-smoking students. That changed once government realized officially that smoking kills. Now, smokers are as rare as white squirrels.

Smartphones don’t kill but they are addictive. They are the ubiquitous cure-all and avoidance strategy. Baby’s upset? Give him a phone. Awkward silence? Pull out the phone, check for updates. If no updates, refresh and check again.

Smartphones aren’t addictive in the way heroin is addictive – researchers still argue whether ‘addiction’ is the right word to describe our love for technology – but they do transform human behaviours, sometimes in negative ways.

In a series of interviews that form the basis of her 2015 book Reclaiming Conversation, sociologist Sherry Turkle documents how smartphones have undermined everyday social interactions by eroding our ability and desire to talk to one another.

One interviewee, who told Turkle that “Conversation died in 2009,” the year Facebook took off, noted that technology made friendship harder. At his high school graduation, “people barely spoke. … They didn’t even try. Everyone knew that when they go home they would see the pictures of the party.”

Technology, Turkle notes, puts emotion at a distance. Saying goodbye can be emotional, so students buffer the raw emotion with smartphones and social media. The more connected we become, the more we let our technology mediate our relationships.

In the classroom, too.

The same interviewee related how smartphones upended discussions in the classroom. Students didn’t engage in the thrust-and-parry of good conversation. Rather, they spoke in a way that resembled online posts. Instead of responding to what the previous person said, students offered what they had planned to say.

I’ve seen a bit of this clunky, post-rather-than-respond conversation. But more often I’ve been disquieted by the eerie silence that descends on a classroom when we take a short break. Instead of breaking out the conversation, students break out their phones – presumably in the same way an earlier generation lit up cigarettes.

Some students even put earphones in. At first, I thought students who closed themselves off to the people sitting right beside them were snobs. After reading Turkle, I’m convinced that most students don’t know how to talk to their desk mates face-to-face.

Students stuck in this bubble deserve sympathy – and help. It’s hard enough when you don’t know what to say to a stranger. It’s even harder when you don’t know how to speak to a stranger. Re-educating students in the joy of conversation will do more than help them master their learning – it’ll help them become humane.

If we have to quibble with France’s decision, let’s object to the idea that common sense has to be legislated. But if it must be legislated, let’s be embarrassed (for the French and for ourselves) that we have become so tied to machines that government had to banish smartphones from class.

France’s decision to ban smartphones from classrooms can‘t hurt. In fact, if it inspires a renaissance in face-to-face conversation, it’s done a great good.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

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