The Evidence Accumulates: It is Long Past Time to Eliminate Cellphone Usage in America’s Schools

The Evidence Accumulates: It is Long Past Time to Eliminate Cellphone Usage in America’s Schools
The Evidence Accumulates: It is Long Past Time to Eliminate Cellphone Usage in America’s Schools

Ask many teachers to identify the biggest problem in classrooms today, and one answer comes almost immediately—cellphones.

A Worldwide Issue

Legitimate complaints come in from teachers nationwide. They relate instances where students contact students in different classes to set up rendezvous in the restrooms. Even when the phones are in “silent” mode, the vibrations are continuous distractions. A massive amount of classroom time is lost because teachers must continuously tell students to put their phones away.

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A recent Associated Press article states, “In California, a high school teacher complains that students watch Netflix on their phones during class. In Maryland, a chemistry teacher says students use gambling apps to place bets during the school day.”

Many students concur. Alex, a student in Manchester, Missouri, described his reasoning as part of a nationwide project conducted by the New York Times. “The phrase ‘eyes glued to the screen’ is an understatement…. Consequently, this adds to the overarching problem of mental health issues because of how attached students are to devices.”

How Big is the Problem?

However, other students disagree strongly. Another respondent to the Times project, Natalie of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, shared her opinion. “Many students already have negative attitudes toward school: a major cause of stress and dread for some. I strongly feel a cellphone ban would only intensify these negative attitudes towards school as a whole…. It just isn’t worth it.”

Natalie’s concluding phrase, “It just isn’t worth it,” is far too common among students, teachers and administrators. The cellphone appears to be an invincible foe—a regrettable but omnipresent part of the social fabric.

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In 2022, Warren County, Virginia, decided to conduct its own research to determine the size and scope of the problem. They conducted their survey online, and respondents—teachers, parents and students—could expand on their answers by providing comments. The local newspaper, The Northern Virginia Daily, described the results.

Universal Concern

Warren County’s policy is one that it shares with many schools nationwide. Students can possess cellphones and other devices on school property or buses. The devices must be turned off during class time unless they are being used with the teacher’s permission for a legitimate classroom purpose. Using an unfiltered Internet connection is forbidden. Violating the rules can result in confiscating the device, and the school might decide to return it only to a parent.

The student results showed the issue’s almost universal nature. Over 93 percent of students possessed cellphones. The vast majority—91 percent—brought those phones to school.

The results from parents were more perplexing. Over 92 percent wanted their children to have their phones “for emergencies.” They held this opinion even though 85 percent agreed that the devices could distract children from learning. Likewise, over 53 percent saw the potential for bullying and unauthorized use of social media. Almost 40 percent of parents thought that students might use their phones to cheat. Still, the ability to contact their children immediately outweighed all other concerns.

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The survey asked teachers how often they needed to ask students to put away their phones. Over 55 percent admitted doing this one to five times per class, almost 30 percent said five to ten times per class, and almost 15 percent had to do this more often.

“No-Win” Teacher-Student Confrontations

Left unmentioned was the difficulty of asking students to surrender their devices, even when the teacher catches the student “red-handed” violating the rules. In the absence of any substantial punishment for insubordination, the students often refuse to give up their phones. This sets up a confrontation that can easily escalate to the extent that the lesson is effectively over.

Too many teachers ignore cellphone-related infractions because of these “no-win” situations. Oregon Math teacher Mark McLaughlin echoed many teachers’ experiences when he told The Guardian, “It’s every class, every period. The worst part of my job is being the cellphone police.”

Patrick Truman, a Maryland high school teacher, echoes that sentiment. He told the Associated Press, “Cellphone use is out of control. By that, I mean that I cannot control it, even in my own classroom.” In one attempt to control the problem, he purchased a 36-slot caddy for storing student phones. Even so, students conceal their phones, play video games, or check social media when their teacher is not looking directly at them. Faced with a choice between teaching the willing students and playing phone policeman, Mr. Truman reluctantly concluded, “Students who are on their phones are at least quiet. They are not a behavior issue.”

Is Banning Cellphones a Solution?

Buxton School in Williamstown, Massachusetts, has adopted an unusual plan. It flatly forbids its students to bring smartphones onto the school campus. Instead, the private boarding school provides each student with a “Light Phone.” According to its manufacturer, this is a “minimal phone.” It can make calls and slowly receive and send text messages. It cannot be used for social media, watching movies or browsing the Internet.

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According to The Guardian, the experiment has been a success.

“Most everyone agrees, however, that the school is better off…. ‘It’s a problem we’ve found a pretty good way to address,’ Scott Hunter, who teaches English and music, said of smartphones. Bea Sas, a senior at Buxton, added: ‘I think people are a lot more social.’”

Of course, a plan that works for an expensive boarding school “limited to 90 students” will not necessarily work in an inner-city school with an enrollment of two thousand.

A Norwegian Study with Surprising Results

Epoch Health reported on several middle schools (grades six, seven and eight) in Norway. These schools banned cellphones altogether. The study focused on the years from 2010 to 2018. The results are startling. Although all students were subjected to the cellphone ban, female students benefitted far more than males.

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Epoch reported four significant findings reflecting that fact.

  1. The number of psychological consultations was reduced by sixty percent in female students.
  2. The incidence of bullying for both girls and boys lowered.
  3. Girls made gains in GPA [Grade Point Average] and externally graded mathematics tests.
  4. Girls were more likely to attend an academic high school track.

The study’s author, Sara Sofie Abrahamsson, also noted, “The stricter the smartphone policy, the greater the improvement among female students.” She also saw a greater benefit for girls from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Time to Redouble Efforts

Study after study confirms the conclusion that cellphones and school do not mix. The only thing lacking is a will to act and confront the controversy from reluctant parents and students. However, real education must include taking unpopular stands and standing for principles.

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It is time for American schools to address these issues and others related to cellphones. The evidence accumulates that such devices exert a severe and harmful effect on the entire educational system. Taking must be taken for the children’s sake. Ten years ago, schools could pretend that lenient disciplinary practices could solve the problems. Now, the failure of that approach is increasingly obvious.

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