“Ban screens” or “digital education”: the unsustainable alternative


At the end of April 2024, the “Screens Commission” submitted its report to the President of the French Republic to regulate the digital practices of young people. Entitled “Children and screens: In search of lost time” , the text has since provoked numerous reactions, particularly focused on health issues. The application of some of its recommendations, in particular the ban on social networks before the age of 15, appears to be questionable .

The 29 proposals oscillate between “total ban on screens” and the need for “better digital training”. Faced with the questions raised by this apparent ambivalence, the co-presidents of this Commission insist on the complementarity of these proposals which must be held together. Banning screens and educating digitally: is this “at the same time” actually possible?

Faced with risks, the choice of withdrawal

The lively debates around the place of screens in our intimate, professional and social spaces are anchored in a “risk society” particularly worried about its future, particularly its ability to cope with technological transformations. If we can recognize an acceleration of these concerns, they are part of a known anthropological movement, that of “moral panic” . This phenomenon of moral panics expresses a fear about the destabilization of societal values, and crystallizes around juvenile uses of said screens and the consequences of these uses on the mental and social health of children and adolescents, as well as on their cognitive development and their general culture.

However, a large and robust American study , carried out over the long term with 12,000 children between 9 and 12 years old, concludes without hesitation that there is no link between time spent “in front of screens” and impact on brain functions and well-being. be children. Yet again, in France, a large-scale longitudinal survey , this time carried out among 18,000 children since their birth, shows that it is social factors which play a preponderant role in the child’s development.

Despite these scientific facts, the debate around the place of said screens in our society is polarizing , and is recently characterized by an ultra-radicalization of postures, which has the first effect of harming everyone’s understanding. At the heart of this debate, “screens”. The use of this generic term is in itself problematic, and the source of much confusion and hasty conclusions. The technical objects it covers are multiple, making the diversity and complexity of their uses invisible, from games to information and communication. Distinguishing between activities that rely on screens is important.

Digital teaching practices to consider

On the evening of the submission of the report produced by the “Screen Commission”, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal ordered “national education [to] sweep in front of its door”, so as to cease within it the use of “the screen for screen” . Such a statement does not fail to surprise. This attack, experienced as such by many teachers and management staff, is incomprehensible when we know the invigorating educational production of teachers in terms of digital education. Incomprehensible also when we already know the difficulties they encounter in their establishments in dealing with complex issues such as the protection of the personal data of minors or the phenomenon of (cyber-) harassment .

Just like “screen”, the term “digital at school” does not mean much. It even tends, no pun intended, to screen the diversity of situations, practices and didactic content experienced in classes. Because that’s what it’s all about. In 2020, a report, published by the National Center for the Study of School Systems (CNESCO), took stock through a vast literature review undertaken by specialists in the field, on the interrelations between “digital and school learning” . His conclusion highlighted the extent to which the educational scenario prevailed for the use of digital tools in the classroom. It is the alliance between teaching strategy and learning objectives that makes the meaning of digital education.

So it seems absurd to “ban screens from nursery schools” – as recommended by the report of the “Screens Commission” – when the school programs mention, from the end of the Grande Section, the expected ability of children “to use screens”. digital objects (camera, tablet, computer)”. In addition, the didactic proposals of nursery school teachers demonstrate a concern to combine the development of language skills and the use of digital resources . A meta-analysis of 19 scientific studies shows that the use of digital tablets with children aged 2 to 5 promotes – provided that they are accompanied by adults – the improvement of the ability to solve problems, the development of mathematical skills or even vocabulary.

It is throughout schooling that digital skills are thought about in the classroom and developed in a thoughtful manner, benefiting from the support of scientific knowledge in the field. The Department of Digital for Education funds research projects ( “Digital Working Groups” ), whose mission is precisely to produce work intended not only to evaluate digital practices in teaching and learning, but also to support stakeholders – teachers, management and supervisory staff, in particular – in the implementation of efficient scenarios.

One of these research groups ( GTnum EMILIE ) places its work around the great organizing triptych of language learning “Say, Read, Write” to promote media and information education anchored in educational and social realities for cycle 2 and 3 students.

At the same time, faced with the threat that the empire of GAFAM undoubtedly constitutes on individual and collective freedoms, the ethical framework within which these digital uses are deployed is the subject of reflection shared by teachers and supervisory staff. They are increasingly keen to adopt uses and practices consistent with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) but also with values ​​– those of the digital commons – in line with the ideal of data protection. Republican school.

Behind divisive speeches, major educational issues

The question of digital technology in education goes far beyond the framework of school, and the private sphere is also the subject of all attention. Here again, the political and media discourse appears divisive, with the Prime Minister not hesitating to state on November 30, 2023: “Regarding the use of screens at home, we are close to a health and educational disaster  ”. Once again, scientific work does not support this assertion. They highlight differentiated social uses of connected objects according to the parental mediations at work, but also more broadly the cultural contexts.

While it is obvious that the integration of this socially shared object constitutes a challenge for the exercise of parenthood , the fact remains that parents face, and need at the same time, reliable information on the subject and support. As shown in 2021 by a survey carried out among 1,852 parents of children aged between 6 and 11, they expect schools to support skills such as “evaluating/verifying information” and “protecting themselves from cyberbullying” , considered essential for the academic success and social integration of their child.

For several years, public policies have grasped the absolute necessity of establishing territorial dynamics involving stakeholders in all their plurality, which demonstrate a concern to promote co-education through digital technology. Educational digital territories ( TNE) illustrate this awareness. These systems are not exempt from criticism, documented by research , but they have the merit of attempting to respond to complex issues through the combination of training and support actions, production of resources and networking between the different authorities. They also have the merit of considering the question of the place of said digital technology in our society for what it is: a question of collective power to act, a question of social, economic and cultural equality of access – to information, sociability, cultural industries, but also administrative procedures and social rights.

Such an intention involves not making adults feel guilty in the private sphere, and above all giving them back the authority and power to act on their own practices and then be able to enter into dialogue with children . A coercive conception of digital education does not fit well with media and information education that promotes reflexivity and the development of a critical culture on a daily basis .

The report “Children and Screens: In Search of Lost Time” has the merit of putting a crucial subject on the table: what conception of our society, of living together, and of mediation, parental and professional, do we want? However, in many places it succumbs to a catastrophist discourse and the temptation to prioritize the ban over education. This obscures a significant part of the scientific literature on the social and cultural realities of digital practices. By relying on recommendations marked by prohibitions, are we not leaving the risk of breaking off dialogue and giving up on educational support for these digital issues? This resignation would simply be a collective defeat.

Author Bio: Anne Cordier is a University Professor of Information and Communication Sciences at the University of Lorraine