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Not so smart with phones in school

Schools grapple with how to handle devices in class


iStock.com/Photo by Daniel de la Hoz

Not so smart with phones in school

South Caldwell High School in Hudson, N.C., requires students to turn their cellphones off during class unless they are using the devices for instructional purposes. But administrator Susan Walker said students struggled with the policy, and sometimes refused to comply. “Even when we were trying to meet with students about academics or behavior, it’s like they couldn’t put it down,” she said. “And they didn’t understand that they should.”

Nearly three-quarters of all 12-year-olds have a smartphone, according to a 2019 Common Sense Media survey. As more students come to school with personal devices that can do much more than send texts and answer calls from Mom and Dad, educators and administrators around the country struggle to know how to respond to technology use—or overuse—in the classroom.

But school officials aren’t alone in their hesitation: Experts also disagree on the best way to approach student technology use at school.

At Wade Hampton High School in Greenville, S.C., students are allowed to use their phones in the hallways and in class if allowed by a teacher. In Massachusetts, school officials at Dartmouth High School will institute a new policy this school year requiring students to put their phones in a pocketed “cell hotel” before class.

Some schools outright ban cellphones, fining students caught using their devices or confiscating them until the end of the school year. Other schools have reversed course on previously strict policies: In 2020, Conway High School in South Carolina relaxed its student cellphone ban to allow students to use their phones in between classes. Principal Lee James told reporters at the time that cellphone-related suspensions had been cut in half under the new policy.

There is no question that students face distractions as well as deeper issues, such as cyberbullying. A 2020 study found that one-fifth of students ages 9-12 had experienced or witnessed cyberbullying. In 2018, a Rutgers University study of college students reported that students in classrooms that allowed personal device use scored an average of half a grade lower, even if those particular students did not use personal devices.

Physician Delaney Ruston directed the film Screenagers and wrote Parenting in the Screen Age: A Guide for Calm Conversations. In 2018, Ruston started the “Away for the Day” initiative, encouraging schools to set policies requiring students to store their phones in a locker or leave them at home for the entire school day.

According to Common Sense Media, teens’ screen time has increased 17 percent since the beginning of the pandemic, while only growing by 11 percent in the previous four-year period. “Screen time is displacing so much time for things that are needed for healthy development,” Ruston said. “Our kids are consuming so much … it is taking away their ability to produce things that make them feel good.”

In Ruston’s view, school policies that require phones to be in lockers all day encourage social interaction and potentially reduce bullying by giving students a break from their screens. But not all agree that students benefit from stricter policies.

Ruston said one common parent concern about removing devices from school buildings is emergency communication. After the deadly shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, more parents and educators may consider these concerns as they draft or update policies for the year. But according to National School Safety and Security Services, student cellphone use can add unintended challenges to law enforcement response, such as overloading cellphone systems.

Diana Graber developed Cyber Civics in 2010 at the request of the principal at her children’s school to help address cyberbullying. With her background in media production and a master’s degree in media psychology and social change, Graber designed a middle school curriculum focusing on digital citizenship and media literacy.

Graber said many parents and educators fret about how much time youth spend on devices, but she thinks the amount of time is irrelevant: “It’s so much more important to look at what they’re using it for.” Graber worries more about misinformation, with children getting news from unvetted TikTok videos instead of trustworthy, more accurate sources.

In 2019, Graber wrote Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology. In the years between her first Cyber Civics class and her book’s release, people began spending more time on mobile devices rather than desktop computers, and social media use ballooned. But Graber said that technology will constantly change, and it’s more important to focus on how students interact with available technology.

From Graber’s perspective, students benefit from teachers integrating cellphone use into their lessons, and teaching them how to use the technology responsibly by focusing on issues like cyberbullying upfront and then talking through agreements on device use. “It’s an appendage that these kids are going to have whether we try to fight it or not,” she said. “Let’s try to teach them how to use it well.”

Walker moved from the high school to Lower Creek Elementary this year and expects fewer issues with the younger children concerning cellphones, but she added that the school does have a no-phone policy in its student handbook.


Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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