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California and other states are banning smartphones in schools: What you need to know

Learn how various states are opting to deal with cell phones in schools and hear from parents, teachers and experts on the frontlines.

California and other states are banning smartphones in schools: What you need to know

If you’re a parent of a tween or teen, you likely won’t be surprised to hear that the nation’s second largest school district recently voted to ban students from carrying cell phones during the school day. Citing safety and security concerns along with disruptions in learning, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) joins a growing number of schools and states banning cell phones and social media use during school hours. But the question remains: Can they do it effectively? 

“Kids no longer have the opportunity to just be kids,” says Nick Melvoin, the LAUSD school board member who spearheaded the ban. “I’m hoping this resolution will help students not only focus in class, but also give them a chance to engage more with each other — and just be kids.”  

Ahead, we’ll delve into LAUSD’s new policy and detail how schools in other states are tackling this issue while gaining insights from parents, teachers and experts on the frontlines. 

“Kids no longer have the opportunity to just be kids. I’m hoping this resolution will help students not only focus in class, but also give them a chance to engage more with each other — and just be kids.”  

— Nick Melvoin, a LAUSD school board member

New cell phone rules for Los Angeles schools 

At their meeting on June 18, 2024, the LAUSD Board of Education voted to ban student use of cell phones and social media during school hours in an effort to improve student mental health and well-being. 

A memorandum from the meeting acknowledges implementation and enforcement problems with their existing 2011 cell phone policy which “prohibits the use of cell phones during normal school hours or school activities, excluding lunchtime or nutrition unless the school has adopted a stricter policy.” The flexibility offered by this original policy made way for district schools (and classrooms) to have differing rules around cell phones. Teachers frequently cited students using their headphones and earbuds parred with their cell phones throughout the school day — impeding their classroom engagement.

However, the memorandum does cite one major potential drawback: “Student cell phone use could potentially decrease school safety during certain emergencies, spreading misinformation and interfering with official communications and directions to students.” 

Ron Self, the director of safety, security and risk management for Little Rock School District, central Arkansas’ largest school district, says cell phones have been a significant problem schools have been grappling with for over a decade. “Finding a solution won’t be as simple as having a policy or law to ban them,” he notes. “The issue is truly a catch-22.” 

Self, who is also a founding committee member of the National Council of School Safety Directors, also wonders about students who ride the city bus or walk to school. “Will administrators be expected to collect phones every day? What happens if a phone gets lost? What if there’s a safety issue? Right now, I’m sure parents and administrators feel like there are many questions left to be answered.”

He says it’s much easier to get a policy like LAUSD’s passed than it is to enforce and communicate it but acknowledges there are great rewards when things are done properly.

Case in point: California’s San Mateo-Foster City School District instituted signal-blocking Yoder pouches that allow students to keep their cell phones with them during the school day without the ability to access them. In an interview with NBC News, superintendent Diego Ochoa called the pouches an “unquestionable success” with students paying more attention in class and spending more time talking with each other outside of class. 

While LAUSD has yet to make the logistics of the revised policy public, it is said to take effect in January 2025 with some exemptions allowed for the roughly 429,000 students impacted. 

Melvoin’s office says the district plans to use the time between now and January to build buy-in and engagement with parents. Some parents, for example, are notably guilty of texting their children throughout the day — a behavior the district hopes to minimize now that they know their child doesn’t have their phone on them. In other words, texting your child for the Netflix password isn’t an emergency and can wait.  

California takes Florida’s lead with proposed statewide legislation    

In February 2024, California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed a statewide smartphone ban that, if passed, would go into effect on July 1, 2026. Likely modeled after Florida, which became the first state to enact such a ban in 2023, the proposed California legislation would require all school districts to “adopt a policy to limit or prohibit student use of smartphones while at school or under the supervision of a school employee.” 

Teachers in Florida found that bans like these are necessary for various reasons. “Unless you have been a teacher in the classroom with middle schoolers or high school students, you have no idea what it means to have to fight for students’ attention,” explains John LaSpina, who taught for 34 years at Broward County Public Schools, Florida’s second-largest school district. “Cell phones were a constant battle; my students would text during class, use them to cheat, take pictures and videos, have alarms and ringers going off and on and on.”

Even before Florida’s statewide ban, LaSpina’s school required students to keep their cell phones off and in their backpacks during class and passing times, but they were able to use them in the cafeteria. 

“With policies like this, the teacher is left to constantly enforce the rules during class — some doing it more than others,” says LaSpina. “You’d walk in the cafeteria and almost everyone was on their phones, not talking to each other or socializing while eating,” he says. “They’d be playing games and watching videos and texting throughout the entire lunchtime.” 

Some Florida schools decided to put stricter restrictions on students and ban cell phones during the entire school day, The New York Times reported — consistent with LAUSD’s newly approved policy. Without constant cell phone use, the hope is students will also engage in more face-to-face conversations, foster better social skills, and have better focus in the classroom.

What’s happening with cell phone bans in other states

Nationally, 76.9% of schools prohibit cell phone use during school hours, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Yet, the scope of and rationale for these bans varies widely and many students (and parents) disregard them. Here are some examples from other schools and states. 

Across the country, 76.9% of schools prohibit cell phone use during school hours.

— The National Center for Education Statistics

Vermont battles cell phones to curb youth suicide  

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in Vermont youth, and a recent study tracking 11-17-year-olds’ phones showed that social media, messaging, YouTube and video games were the most used apps on phones during school hours. Driven by these statistics, the Vermont Senate modified Bill 284 that would require the state to develop a “model policy” regarding phone use in schools. Unfortunately, the proposed legislation recently died in the House

“I’m very concerned that the middle school girls of today are even meaner than they were when I was growing up,” says Marina Mayer, a mother of two from Wauconda, Illinois. While she thinks the teachers at her daughter’s school have done a good job enforcing the “no phones during class” policy, she says a group of girls at her daughter’s school are known for taking pictures of other kids during lunch and sharing them on Snapchat with a rude comment. Other girls, she says, use social media to brag about what they’re doing and who they’re with — clearly outlining who they’re not with.

Similar stories and concerns about cyberbullying, and its effect on children’s mental health stretch from coast to coast. Charlotte Varney, a district representative for the Vermont State School Nurses’ Association, is in favor of banning cell phone and social media use in schools. At St. Johnsbury School, where she works as a lead nurse, students are required to turn in their cell phones at the start of the school day and they get them back at the end of the day. “If schools don’t start setting limits,” she says, “where else can we start to address this health issue?” 

Virginia Senate encourages school boards to make cell phone policies 

While several Virginia school districts already restrict cell phone use during school hours, the state senate cleared a proposal in January 2024 that empowers each school board to develop and implement a policy to “prohibit the possession or use of cell phones and other handheld communication devices during regular school hours.” 

While the bill has yet to go into effect, the Loudoun County School Board took action last April and requested parent feedback on a new draft cell phone policy. (Their previous policy merely stated “students in all grades can use devices in school with a teacher’s permission.”) 

On Tuesday, June 25, the policy was approved and will go into effect at the beginning of the 2024-2025 school year, joining many neighboring districts with the following clarifications:  

  • Elementary school students won’t be allowed to use personal devices during the school day, except in classrooms with a teacher’s permission. 
  • Middle school students must keep devices “off and away” unless approved by administrators or in a classroom with teacher’s permission.
  • High school students can keep their personal devices on, but must keep them silenced during instructional time unless permitted to use them by a teacher. They could use them between classes and at lunch. 

“This rule is perfect,” says Anne Coleman, a mom who has a son in the district’s middle school. She adds that if a student needs a phone for medical reasons, they are allowed to keep it with them all day. For example, some students with learning differences and autism may use smartphones equipped with assistive technologies like screen readers and voice-to-text features. Other students with diabetes may use a glucose-monitoring smartphone app. Coleman’s older son is starting high school in August. She says the principal already told parents “phones are to be off and put away during instructional time.” 

Ohio’s proposal adds on digital media literacy curriculum   

A common argument by those opposed to cell phone bans is that it might hinder students’ ability to develop essential digital media literacy skills necessary for the modern world. So, Ohio Republicans decided to blend the two into their recently proposed legislation. Introduced in April 2024, House Bill 485 seeks to ban student access to any “personal wireless communication device” and social media during class time. 

If passed, Ohio schools would also be required to implement a digital media literacy curriculum in grades six through 12 that includes all of the following: 

  • The negative effects of social media on mental health, including addiction
  • The distribution of misinformation on social media
  • How social media manipulates behavior
  • The permanency of sharing materials online
  • How to maintain personal security and identify cyberbullying, predatory behavior, and human trafficking on the internet
  • How to report suspicious behavior encountered on the internet

This news, which could set a national standard, came on the heels of a December 2023 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that called for requirements for digital media literacy education for student teachers. 

“Middle school students don’t have the mental development to be able to manage this complicated electronic convenience the same way adults can,” says LaSpina, who taught six, seventh and eighth graders. “They think they ‘need’ their cell phones or they go into withdrawal.”  

“Middle school students don’t have the mental development to be able to manage this complicated electronic convenience the same way adults can. They think they ‘need’ their cell phones or they go into withdrawal.”  

— John LaSpina, who taught for 34 years at Broward County Public Schools

What parents are saying

Many parents, including Mayer, want their middle and high school-aged children to have their cell phones easily accessible in school in case there is an emergency. 

While understandable given the rise in school shootings, Dr. Kathleen Harknett, a North Carolina-based pediatrician and mother of three, disagrees that cell phones increase safety. 

“All schools should be equipped with a telephone system and have an emergency preparedness team with cell phones,” she explains in reference to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidance. “I won’t get my children a smartphone until age 16, but since landlines are no longer an option in our area, my husband and I would consider letting them carry a Light Phone when they need a way to contact an adult.” (A Light Phone is an unlocked cell phone that has WiFi, cannot display images and does not have a camera, an internet browser or any access to social media or other apps — making them a great smartphone alternative for children.)

Other parents worry it might be too much change too fast. “If school administrators want to ban cell phones, they’re going to have to phase it in,” adds Aubrie Entwood, a mom from Ithaca, New York. “Kids who have had unfettered access are going to protest; this is a cultural change that will take time.” 

Entwood admits both she and her son spend a lot of time on their phones. “It’s hard to move backward without some serious help or social change,” she says. Many districts in her home state made unsuccessful attempts to curb the use of phones in school throughout the 2000s. Today, David Banks, the chancellor of New York City Public Schools, is leading the charge to reinstate the cell phone ban in the nation’s largest school district.   

What’s happening with cell phone bans at the federal level

As technology continues to expand, cell phone and social media use will continue to be central concerns uniting parents, caregivers and legislators across the nation. 

Two U.S. senators — Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, and Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat — recently joined forces for The Focus on Learning Act, legislation that would require a federally funded nationwide study on the effects of cell phone use in schools.  

The bill, which was introduced in the Senate in November 2023 was referred to their Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, also authorizes $5 million annually for the next five years for a pilot program that provides schools with secure containers for students to store phones during school hours.

“I think these bans are ultimately a good thing,” says Stephen Owens, director of policy and advocacy at Brown’s Promise, an initiative of the Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit focused on advancing equitable education policies, who holds his doctorate in educational policy. “I don’t expect [test] scores to go up significantly or discipline to ease much, but there’s a reasonable expectation that students will appreciate the change.”  

The bottom line on cell phone bans at schools across the country

While it’s tempting for everyone, including policymakers, to blame cell phones for disengagement in the classroom, the real problem might lie in an education system struggling to hold the attention of the digitally native Gen Z and Gen Alpha. 

“Let’s not pretend that school — pre-cell phones — was a peaceful haven of academic enrichment,” cautions Owens. “I was there; kids find other things to get distracted by.”

Fortunately, many schools and states are making conscious efforts to strike a balance with policies that acknowledge the digital realities of today and added curriculum to enhance digital media literacy.