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Should School Days Be Phone-Free?

Can schools go completely phone-free (and should they)?

Published on: July 27, 2023

Teenagers using their cell phones

Should cell phones be allowed in schools?

When The Atlantic published an article by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt titled “Get Phones Out of Schools Now” this past June, I wasn’t surprised by his plea. The numerous studies cited in the piece mirror my experience as an educator: students earning lower grades, underperforming on tests and struggling to retain information when their phones are out.

The U.S. Surgeon General’s 2023 Advisory notes that “adolescents who spent more than three hours per day on social media faced double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes, including symptoms of depression and anxiety.” The advisory warns about impaired social connections and feelings of loneliness at school, further stating that social media cannot be concluded to be sufficiently safe for children and adolescents. The case is clear: Cell phones don’t belong in schools.

A local test case

For a decade, the high school where I teach had a strict no-phone policy. Cell phones were banned in classrooms, hallways and at lunch. After the pandemic, we relaxed the rules and allowed phones for “school-related tasks.”

At first it seemed like a good idea. Students took pictures of textbook pages to avoid lugging heavy books home. Many students could research, calculate and take notes faster on their phones than on paper or a laptop. Allowing kids to listen to music while working seemed innocuous enough at first. Their phones were already out, after all. But soon those listeners spent half of class scrolling YouTube videos in search of the perfect song. Naturally, these students reacted to texts and comments on apps meant to keep users hooked. The situation quickly devolved into masses of students who watched TikTok and checked messages during every lesson, every day. Relaxing cell phone rules had been an ill-informed disaster.

The reality of enforcing no-phone policies in schools

The Atlantic article states that the only way to truly create a phone-free school is to have students begin the day by placing their phones into a locker or lockable pouch that would remain contained until the end of the day. However, in this year of budget cuts, many districts don’t have the money to purchase fancy cell-phone-locking pouches. Plus, it’s not a foolproof system. Students could simply claim they left their phone at home and bypass the policy. As a parent, I don’t love the idea either. The ability to contact your child during an emergency is one of the primary reasons people buy their kids a phone in the first place.

This leaves enforcement up to classroom teachers. Educators have two options: Kids can either drop off phones in a designated spot when class begins, or teachers can make a rule that phones must stay silent and unseen.

Using a phone drop-off center

Remember those hanging contraptions with storage pockets for classroom calculators? They also make excellent holders for cell phones.

The logistics of having kids drop their phones in such a spot is tricky. An instructional delay is inevitable as students find, turn off and deposit their phones during the first few minutes of class. The policy also increases the likelihood of conflict before the bell even rings, which is not the best way to begin class. Not to mention, policing cell phone retrieval after class ends to ensure nothing is stolen is an extra chore. Plus, students can always claim they don’t have a phone and skirt the rule.

However, there are benefits of using a drop-off center. Putting phones out of reach at the beginning of class means teachers don’t have to spend time monitoring for stealth phone usage. Students won’t be tempted to sneak a peek at phones during class time, as they’re out of reach. It also has the potential to eliminate the “bathroom problem,” where students request to use the bathroom so they can have phone time. That can’t happen if all phones are already stored in the drop-off center.

The silent-and-unseen policy

Under this policy, teachers simply confiscate a cell phone if it’s heard or seen. It’s a simple strategy, but not without its own set of enforcement issues. While some kids will apologize and hand over the phone if they get caught, others will refuse to do so. In those instances, can teachers simply take a phone off a student’s desk? Snatch a phone out of a student’s hands? TikTok is full of videos featuring students screaming at (and in one instance, pepper spraying) teachers for doing this. If a student drops their phone into a backpack or pocket as the teacher is en route to confiscate it, an administrator must be called to deal with the situation.

In a large public high school, enforcing this policy quickly becomes a full-time job. The school then needs a secure collection site and system to allow students to pick up their phone at the end of the school day — and a suitable deterrent to ensure compliance with the policy.

Combining approaches

In the past, I’ve used a combination of these two policies. If I see a cell phone, the student has to put it in the pocket wall hanger for the period. If they refuse, an administrator is called and the student’s phone is confiscated for the day. These are policies I’ll be returning to in the fall. I’ll also be adding more context. While teaching my history students how to back up thesis statements with evidence, they’ll read evidence-based articles about cell phone use in schools as examples. While I’m under no delusion that students will agree with my no-cell-phone policy, giving teenagers the “why” is an important part of the learning process.

A community-wide effort

Enforcing a no-phone policy requires the entire school community to be on board. If most teachers let the issue slide, those who do enforce the school policy will be under more student pressure to allow phones in the class. If school administrators are unwilling or unable to confiscate phones or dole out punishment to frequent cell users, the no-phone policy will go belly up. Ditto if guardians and parents insist on the ability to reach their children throughout the day.

After two years of a relaxed cell phone policy, two years of lackluster student growth and two years of rapidly declining mental health in our teens, the cell phone debate is escalating from a classroom management issue to a moral imperative. If we want kids to soak up as much learning as possible and improve their mental health in the process, we must show them how to put their cell phones down — at least for the length of one class period.

Wait Until 8th

Even before the U.S. Surgeon General released his recent advisory about the adverse effects of social media on youth mental health, parents were working overtime to limit kids’ screen time and protect them from the open waters of the internet. They knew what study after study has shown: excessive time spent online poses significant risks to kids — and having a smartphone increases those risks. Which begs the question, what can parents do in a world of proliferating smartphone use among children?

Wait Until 8th leverages the power of community so parents feel supported making responsible decisions regarding smartphone use for their kids. Parents pledge not to give their child a smartphone until eighth grade — here’s the powerful part — “as long as at least 10 families from your child’s grade and school pledge.” Banding together safeguards parents and kids from feeling pressured to get a smartphone too soon.

Learn more and take the pledge at the Wait Until 8th website.

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