Students can’t get off their phones
The announcement yesterday that schools across England are ordered to outlaw smartphones during lessons and break times, has given a boost to conversations about the topic. Gillian Keegan, Education Secretary in England, reportedly “believes that mobile phones pose a serious challenge in terms of distraction, disruptive behaviour, and bullying, according to an insider. ‘It is one of the biggest issues that children and teachers have to grapple with so she will set out a way forward to empower teachers to ban mobiles from classrooms.’”
School districts all over Europe have grappled with the problem, agreeing that “the presence of smartphones in the classroom – and constant notifications from apps – has been blamed for causing disruption, as well as fuelling cyber-bullying and thefts. In June, Finland became the latest country to ban phones in class in a bid to reverse a decline in exam results ”
In July of this year, UNESCO reported that “Smartphones should be banned from schools to tackle classroom disruption, improve learning and help protect children from cyberbullying.” The UN agency said there is evidence that excessive mobile phone use is linked to reduced educational performance. Additionally, high levels of screen time have a negative effect on children’s emotional stability.
Based on its analysis of 200 education systems around the world, UNESCO estimated one in four countries had banned smartphones in school, either through law or guidance. These included France, which introduced its policy in 2018, and the Netherlands, which will bring in restrictions from 2024.
The Washington Post reported in May that “schools in Ohio, Colorado, Maryland, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia, California and others banned the devices in class to curb student obsession, learning disruption, disciplinary incidents and mental health worries.”
How can schools implement and enforce a cell phone ban?
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has broken down the phone banning methods to five levels:
- Level 1: Students can take their phone out during class, but only to use it for class purposes.
- Level 2: Students can hold on to their phone but are not supposed to take it out of their pocket or backpack at all during class time.
- Level 3: Phone caddies in classrooms: Students put their phone into a wall pocket or storage unit at the start of each class, and then pick it up at the end of that class.
- Level 4: Lockable pouches (such as those made by Yondr). Students are required to put their phone into their own personal pouch when they arrive at school, which is then locked with a magnetic pin (like the anti-theft tags used in clothing stores). Students keep the pouch with them but cannot unlock it until the end of the school day, when they are given access to a magnetic unlocking device.
- Level 5: Phone lockers. Students lock their phone into a secure unit with many small compartments when they arrive at school. They keep their key and get access to the phone lockers again only when they leave school.
Levels 1 and 2 are the hardest to monitor and rely on student impulse control. Levels 3, 4, and 5 remove the responsibility from teachers and students, and ensure there is no phone disruption during class time. Levels 4 and 5 restrict cell phone use for the entire day.
Although most school systems have had some sort of ban, or restrictions on student cell phone use, enforcement has been lax and difficult. Teachers have complained about the extra burden of being the “phone cop”. With academic performance down in many districts, some are blaming it on social media distractions and constant connection to the internet and would like to ban the phones but don’t know how to implement such a ban.
Critics of restrictions on cell phones say they are necessary for emergencies. Students say they use them to check in with parents or coaches, and use them to check on grades or assignments. Some say they use them to listen to music, which helps them concentrate. Allowing students to bring their phones to school, but surrender them until the end of the school day can partially satisfy those objections. In a Pittsburgh suburb, though, students got around the phone surrender by giving up an old phone and keeping their current phone hidden.
In Virginia Beach, “a new regulation this school year forbids cellphone use during instructional hours or in a school setting. Middle-schoolers now must keep phones stowed in their lockers. High school students may carry phones — and use them during lunch or between classes — but not in class.”
Teachers in Kansas have raised concerns during contract negotiations, asking their districts to ban cellphones in class. Wichita high school teacher Mike Harris said that since students now have district-provided Chromebooks they can use in class, “they don’t need their cellphones to learn.”
In Danbury, CN, Kristy Zaleta, principal of Rogers Park Middle School, has switched to a compromise plan where phones are off limits except during the transition periods between classes, and during lunch. Any other time, and the phones are taken away. The result? “There’s a calmer sense,” she said. “It definitely feels like the air has changed.” The previous year, she said, “almost broke us.”
How are things going in schools with a cell phone ban?
School superintendent Bill Wilson, of the Brush, CO school district said that nearly all of their discipline issues last year were related to phones. Social media posts and texts during school hours led to conflicts, bullying, or other issues. This year, no phones allowed in classrooms, and he said he sees more interaction between teachers and students, more focus, less conflict in hallways. And only a handful of students are second-time offenders. “The majority of our students, when we surveyed them, were thankful for it because it has reduced the stress in their life,” Wilson said. “They’re not worried about what their friends are saying, at least not during school time.” Several parents were critical early on, he said, but most have been accepting.
More research needs to be done to provide high quality experimental evidence as to the benefits phone-free schools provide, but “It helped me a lot,” one student at San Mateo High School in California told NBC News after her school started using lockable pouches. “Before, I would usually just like curl over in the side of my desk, and, like, check my phone and text everyone. But now there’s no other thing for us to look at or do except for talk to our teacher or pay attention.”
For a deeper dive into the current state of cell phone addiction, please read this fabulous essay in The Atlantic by Jonathan Haidt, Get Phones Out of Schools Now.