Should Schools Really Ban Cellphones?
Cellphones are causing so much disruption and distraction that schools are considering banning them. What do you think they should do?
Hi friends - A big welcome to everyone who found me through my interview on The Puberty Podcast. I’m thrilled that so many new people have been signing up for this newsletter. Thank you for sharing it!
This week, I’d love to have you leave a comment with your thoughts on cellphones and schools. Many of you are parents and educators, and I bet you have opinions about this. Teen Health Today commenters are smart, kind, and open to learning, and I hope you’ll join us in conversation!
The Washington Post Editorial Board Calls For A National Ban On Smartphones In Schools
This week, the debate about whether cellphones belong in schools escalated with this editorial from the Washington Post, which talks about the efforts some individual schools and districts have made to restrict phone use, and then lays out a major call to action:
“In 2024, these efforts should go even further: Impose an outright ban on bringing cellphones to school, which parents should welcome and support.”
Here’s the board’s reasoning:
Social media, the U.S. surgeon general wrote in an advisory this year, might be linked to the growing mental health crisis among teens. And even if this link turns out to be weaker than some recent research suggests, smartphones are undoubtedly a classroom distraction.
In educational settings, smartphones have an almost entirely negative impact: Educators and students alike note they can fuel cyberbullying and stifle meaningful in-person interaction. A 14-country study cited by UNESCO found that the mere presence of a mobile phone nearby was enough to distract students from learning. It can take up to 20 minutes for students to refocus.
That UNESCO report, “Technology in Education: A Tool In Whose Terms?” cites studies from Belgium, Spain and the U.K. show that banning mobile phones from schools improves academic performance, especially for low-performing students. Students in Spain also reported less bullying after cell phones were banned from schools.
Two recent articles from New York Times writer Natasha Singer helped kick off this national discussion about U.S. schools and what they should do about cellphone use:
Singer described how schools got to the point where bans are under consideration:
Like many exasperated parents, public schools across the United States are adopting increasingly drastic measures to try to pry young people away from their cellphones. Tougher constraints are needed, lawmakers and district leaders argue, because rampant social media use during school is threatening students’ education, well-being and physical safety.
In some schools, young people have planned and filmed assaults on fellow students and then uploaded the videos to platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Teachers and principals warn that social apps like Snapchat have also become a major distraction, prompting some pupils to keep messaging their friends during class.
Judging by how many times these articles were shared with me, they really struck a nerve with exasperated teachers. Some even decided to ask their students to read and respond, using lesson prompts provided by the New York Times Learning Network.
My Own Experience With A Cell Phone Ban
Reading these stories, I was reminded of my own experience seeing a cell phone ban go into effect. In 2022, I taught at Francisco Middle School for a few weeks while the school worked to hire a permanent Health Ed teacher. I happened to be there just as the school implemented a new ban on cellphones - it was one of several schools in San Francisco Unified that elected to use Yondr pouches to keep phones away during school hours.
Here’s how it worked: Every student got their own Yondr pouch, which they were responsible for bringing to school every day. School staff members (administrators, security guards, etc.) would greet students at the door when they arrived at school, making sure students locked their devices away in their personal Yondr pouches.
The students keep the pouches with them all day, but couldn’t access the phones inside until school let out. After the last bell rang, school staff members would open the pouches with a magnetic unlocking device, making the phones available to use again.
Its not as complicated as it might sound - here’s a quick demo showing how it works:
The biggest concern from families about efforts like this is often “How will I reach my child in a crisis, like a school shooting?” That is a real worry, and I think any school putting cell phone restrictions in place will need to address it.
One example of how to do that is shown in this letter introducing a cell phone ban to families from Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in San Francisco, which assures families that “School staff will be able to unlock a Yondr pouch in a matter of seconds for students once they are in a safe and secure location.”
In addition to answering questions about safety, they also talked up the benefits of using the pouches, citing these statistics from a Yondr study of 900 school partners:
65% of schools saw an improvement in academic performance
74% of schools saw an improvement in student behavior
83% of schools saw an improvement in student engagement in the classroom
Yondr pouches are not a perfect solution, because some students may really need their phones in school. For example, some students with disabilities regularly use phone-based tools to better access material in class, and students who are learning English often use their phones for translation help. In cases like these, schools may need to make accommodations.
As a teacher, I can say that not having cell phones out in class does change students’ behavior and attention dramatically - but any schools that put a new ban in place should expect a lot of complaints from students when it first rolls out, even if they may come to appreciate it eventually.
Whatever solutions schools settle on, It’s always better to implement them school-wide, and have the expectations be the same in every room on campus. The more we can avoid having individual teachers tasked with cell phone enforcement, the better. Let teachers focus on teaching and let non-classroom staff deal with the phones.
Do You Think Schools Should Ban Cellphones? I’d Love to Know What You Think!
Please comment on this post and tell us what you think schools should do about students and cellphones. Feel free to specify your geographic region and your relationship to this issue (Parent? Teacher? Student? Considered citizen?) We don’t all have to have the same opinion (wouldn’t that be boring?) but please treat your fellow readers with respect.