Osaka school mobile ban resonates

Aim to curb problematic e-mail, cheating, get kids to hit the books

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — Each morning, Hisako Kuroda sends her sons, Kenichi, 11, and Jun, 8, off to elementary school in Osaka. The kids depart with their textbooks and homework. But one item they are not carrying is a cell phone.

“Some parents give their children cell phones because they are worried about their safety. I’m more worried about the kinds of distractions in the classroom cell phones provide, and the quality of education in a school where students spend more time on their cell phones than in concentrating on their lessons,” Kuroda said.

Her worries are shared by Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto and a growing number of people within the central government, as calls for curbing cell phone use among children mount nationwide.

Hashimoto took the lead by announcing in early December that all prefectural elementary and junior high schools will ban cell phones beginning in January.

About two weeks later, an educational advisory committee to the government announced it would formally recommend that Prime Minister Taro Aso pursue a nationwide ban.

Educators and parents have long warned that the proliferation of cell phones was leading to problems in and out of the classroom. Politicians and bureaucrats have, until recently, left regulations pertaining to cell phone use in the classroom up to local boards of education.

Hashimoto, who has seven children, announced during a regular news conference Dec. 3 that students at elementary and junior high schools run by the prefecture would no longer be allowed to bring cell phones to class from January, and that high school students would face restricted usage.

He clarified his remarks in mid-December by saying he would also push the boards of education in the cities of Osaka and Sakai, which operate independently of other prefectural boards of education, to go along with the ban.

The ban in Osaka comes after a prefectural education committee reported in July that students are spending less time on their studies due to an addiction to cell phones.

Many towns throughout the prefecture, and the country, already have classroom cell phone bans, but Hashimoto is the first governor to publicly declare he would enforce a ban.

“There may be those who say the prefectural bureaucracy should not interfere in a private matter. However, cell phones are not necessary in the classroom,” Hashimoto said at his early December briefing.

In the July report, the prefectural education committee warned that a growing number of children are becoming addicted to their cell phones, sending e-mails during class or cheating by logging onto the Internet to look up test answers.

“One purpose of the ban is to end the addiction to cell phones,” Hashimoto said.

An addiction to cell phones may be affecting Osaka students in particular. An education ministry survey of academic ability in October 2007 showed Osaka’s elementary and junior high school students ranked near the bottom of all 47 prefectures in reading, logic and arithmetic skills, and sparked an intense debate in the prefecture that continues to rage.

A followup survey by the ministry in mid-2008 found a slight improvement, but Osaka students still ranked below the national average in all categories.

On the surface, Hashimoto’s directive is not revolutionary. Nearly 88 percent of Osaka Prefecture’s elementary schools and 94 percent of its junior high schools already have bans on cell phone usage in classrooms.

The prefecture admits even a blanket ban will still result in students sneaking their phones into school.

Hashimoto has also said he is willing to consider exempting children with two working parents who want to check up on them after school.

Hashimoto’s declaration was immediately welcomed. A survey by a private research firm showed that 72 percent of parents in Osaka Prefecture back the governor. Local media surveys after Hashimoto’s announcement found that between 80 percent and 90 percent of parents support a ban.

The ban also has supporters at the national level. Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura indicated his support for Hashimoto’s proposal, as did Kunio Hatoyama, internal affairs and communications minister, while education minister Ryu Shionoya said he personally welcomed the move.

Not long afterward came the announcement that an advisory committee to the prime minister would recommend virtually the same ban as Osaka nationwide.

Beyond raising academic standards, supporters also cite the need to curb the growing problem of harassment by cell phone, when school bullies use their cell phone cameras to take pictures of their victims and then post them on the Internet with crude comments.

However, those who are opposed wonder if Hashimoto and the other supporters of a cell phone ban are going too far.

One of the anonymous responses from parents, students and others to the Osaka prefectural survey in July said: “With the disappearance of public phones, how are students supposed to contact their parents in case of an emergency?”

Another respondent said, “What’s wrong with just making sure all cell phones are turned off when entering the school and allowing them to be turned on again after exiting school grounds?”

Another response was: “Why can’t the school or the teachers just collect the cell phones when students enter the school grounds, and return them at the end of the day?”

And then there is the issue of safety, which cell phone supporters cite as a primary reason not to institute a ban.

Many cell phones used by elementary and junior high school children have Global Positioning System features so parents can keep track of their child’s whereabouts.

Or they have built-in whistles or alarms that can be sounded in case of trouble.

“Yes, there are dangers, but there always have been,” Kuroda said.

“Too many parents are relying on cell phone technology rather than taking responsibility themselves for teaching their kids about how to deal with potential dangers. In the process, children are failing to learn to think for themselves in the classroom and out.”