Should children be allowed to smoke cigarettes at school? Strange as it sounds, there was a time when senior educators in Ontario believed they should.

In 1985, given the overwhelming evidence of smoking’s harms, the Ontario Medical Association urged a ban on student smoking. According to a Globe and Mail article from the time, the OMA implored school boards across the province to stop children from “taking up demonstrably unhealthy lifestyles” and noted “the high personal health costs for children from smoking and involuntary exposure to tobacco smoke.”

John Tolton, then chairman of the Metro Toronto School Board, was having none of it. Tolton doubted whether schools even had the right to ban smoking, and if they did, “it will merely drive smoking underground.” (He was also unconvinced of the dangers of second-hand smoke.) There were other concerns, including the belief that bans would drive smokers off school property, inciting conflicts with neighbours and exacerbating absenteeism. Some parents gave their kids permission to smoke, so (the thinking went) better to offer them a regulated space in which to do so.

It was not until 1994 that Bob Rae’s NDP government passed the Tobacco Control Act, universally banning smoking on school property across the province. The bill, which also prohibited the sale of cigarettes in vending machines and pharmacies and raised the smoking age to nineteen, was touted as “the toughest tobacco-control bill in North America.”

Over the past few years, the debate over how to manage cellphones in schools has offered a reprise of many of these arguments. Kids are going to use their devices anyway, so what’s the point of punishing them or tasking overworked teachers with policing usage? Do teachers have the right to confiscate students’ phones? And even if they are banned in classrooms, what’s to stop middle-school influencers from Snapping up a storm in the bathrooms or elsewhere on school grounds?

In Ontario, the conversation around kids’ use of cellphones recently reached an inflection point. In March, the Toronto District School Board and three other counterparts launched lawsuits against social media companies (including the owners of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok) for marketing intentionally addictive products to children and for “rewiring” the way children “think, act, behave and learn.” The boards allege that students’ compulsive social media use is causing “significant attention, focus and mental health concerns” and that the resulting behavioural dynamics have necessitated “massive shifts and resource demands.” Then, on April 28, education minister Stephen Lecce announced that, starting September 2024, the province was banning cellphones in elementary schools for the entire day and during class time for middle and high school students. (It was, Lecce said, “the toughest policy in Canada” on cellphones in schools.) The move follows Quebec’s efforts last December to ban cellphones from elementary and secondary classrooms.

Ontario’s new rules are an important start. They legitimate what parents and teachers have long suspected—that smartphones threaten both our kids’ education and their mental health. Children do not use cellular technology; the technology uses our children—by monetizing their data and converting their attention into advertising revenue. Yet serious questions remain about how the new policy will be enforced, and broad public consensus—including the resolute support of parents—will be required to save kids from the technological addictions with which they’ve been saddled. More than policy, we need a deep cultural aversion to kids using smartphones, especially at school. Phones in classrooms need to become, for my children’s generation, what smoking butts in the bathroom became for mine: it needs to be seen as gross. There is no shortage of reasons why.

If there was ever a time we could ignore the harmful effects smartphones have on our children, that time has passed. Of the roughly 91 percent of Ontario students in grades seven to twelve who use social media daily, nearly one-third do so for five hours or more per day, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s 2021 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey. And of those students, 38 percent rate their own mental health as “fair” or “poor,” with over a quarter of them reporting serious psychological distress.

Mental health indicators among Canadian teens have been in free fall since the widespread adoption of the social media–enabled smartphone in 2012. When research scientists Jonathan Haidt and Zach Rausch began curating an open-source literature review to better track those indicators, they found data from the Canadian Community Health Survey that showed almost 77 percent of young females in Canada described their mental health as “excellent or very good in 2009”; ten years later, this number had dropped to 54 percent. Hospitalizations due to self-harm also rose sharply over the same period: while self-harm emergency room visits among Ontario youth had fallen 32 percent from 2003 to 2009, they rose 135 percent by 2017. According to Haidt and Rausch’s analysis of Statistics Canada data, the suicide rate for young female Canadian teens has increased by 25 percent since 2010. “As in the USA, the mental health of young Canadian females fell off a cliff in the 2010s,” they wrote.

Of course, the strong correlation between rising social media use and deteriorating teen mental health doesn’t prove causation. Yet, as Haidt argued in a 2021 piece for The Atlantic, “nobody has yet found an alternative explanation for the massive, sudden, gendered, multinational deterioration of teen mental health during the period in question.”

What the data can’t convey is the range of detrimental behaviours related to smartphones in schools—from students texting one another to meet up in the bathrooms to filming fight videos that circulate on social media. Fights were, of course, a fixture of pre-cellphone school experience. But while those fights often ended in physical injuries and humiliation, at least they ended: they were not instantly converted into on-demand entertainment. Today, physical beat-downs are filmed and uploaded to school-based fight groups on Instagram and other platforms—where they live on more or less indefinitely (sometimes they’re forced down, but they inevitably seem to crop back up, according to educators). As a result, children are forced to re-endure their physical trauma through videos that may resurface years after the event.

Smartphones have proven to be ingenious tools for teens trying to stir up conflict: one tactic among instigators is to begin a seemingly anodyne conversation (be it online or IRL), then to slowly entice an unknowing student to talk smack about a peer. This incriminating video or screenshot then gets posted in a group chat or sent to the insulted party. Violence (be it physical or emotional) ensues.

Yet perhaps the most devastating consequence of smartphones in schools is more mundane: their capacity to distract. It’s hard for students to maintain concentration at the best of times, and for children whose executive functions are still developing, the ping or vibration of a notification can be impossible to ignore—especially if the educational task at hand is difficult. As an experiment, a grade nine math teacher in Brockville recently asked his class to turn on their notifications. He found that his twenty students received 190 notifications over the course of his one-hour class, most of them via Snapchat and presumably from friends who should also have been paying attention in their classes. Meanwhile, jurisdictions that have banned cellphones have reported decreased bullying, improved social interaction, and greater engagement in the classroom.

In her seventeen years at R. H. King Academy in Scarborough, now vice principal Lesley McLean has seen first-hand the array of learning and behavioural problems related to cellphones in schools. When it comes to disciplinary issues, McLean has come to understand cellphones as exponential “amplifiers” of offline problems. “A kid who makes good social decisions, who is managing real-life interactions, successful academically—this student is probably not getting into trouble online,” McLean says. “But for students who are getting into conflicts, face learning challenges, or have trouble focusing, the cellphone is an enormous amplifier of real-life problems.” In other words, the negative effects of what the TDSB lawsuit calls the “rewiring” of children are not evenly distributed: students who are already troubled or “at risk” often bear the brunt.

Given the worsening youth mental health crisis and widespread disruptions that cellphones have brought to our learning environments, an intervention from the ministry of education was overdue. As of September 2024, students will have to stow away their phones during instructional time; those who fail to comply will be sent to the office and face possible suspension. Social media will be banned from school Wi-Fi networks, and students will now be evaluated on “distraction” on their report cards.

The real-world impact of these rules is far from certain. Lecce insists that phones will be “out of sight, out of mind”—but where, exactly, will phones be? Teachers cannot search students, and a phone vibrating in your pocket is hardly out of mind. Banning social media from school networks means nothing to students armed with data plans. And while the government’s scheme mentions suspensions as a possible consequence, principals are understandably reluctant to exclude children from school, both because suspensions have been challenged as discriminatory under the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal and because the Education Act sets a high bar: infractions include possessing firearms, trafficking in weapons or drugs, committing physical assault that requires medical treatment, or committing sexual assault.

Schools can do only so much, and parents need to have realistic expectations. “If you can’t get your kid off the phone at bedtime, how do you expect a teacher to get your kid off the phone in class?” McLean asked. “The students who are most addicted to their phones at schools are also the students who are on their phones at 2 a.m. at home.” Still, McLean believes that it is incumbent upon educators to provide students with part of their day that will be spent offline, and to “take away that easy escape mechanism as soon as they’re bored or challenged.”

While the government’s new rules are not a panacea, they are part of a broader shift in social norms. Some will inevitably suggest that, because some kids will ignore the new rules, the rules are not worth the attempt. The debate about ending smoking at school demonstrated the hollowness of this argument. Social phenomena are acceptable until they aren’t. The idea that children inevitably smoke on school grounds in Canada was once conventional. Between 2021 and 2022, 2 percent of high school students smoked, down from approximately 30 percent in 1999.

The social marginalization of smoking provides a road map for how we might deal with cellphones. It also provides hope. The successful campaign against smoking included government action, parental buy-in, and a public education campaign. The outline of a similar public health campaign against children’s use of addictive smartphones is now coalescing around a simple message: smartphones make children sick.

That fact, once firmly established in the public mind, will prove more powerful than the emergent constellation of lawsuits, rules, and prohibitions. If we want healthy children, we need to liberate them from addictive technology, for as many hours each day and for as many days as possible. Schools are a natural place to start.

Mark your calendar for The Walrus Talks at Home on October 10 on the impacts of social media on youth mental health, in partnership with Brain Canada. Sign up for our events newsletter for more information.

Ira Wells
Ira Wells teaches literature and cultural criticism at the University of Toronto. His work has appeared in The New Republic, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Puritan, and elsewhere.