Cell phones in school: Let’s talk about the pros and cons

Oct. 18, 2019
Cell phones in school: Let’s talk about the pros and cons

There’s no doubt that more and more kids are getting cell phones. According to a 2018 study by Pew Research, 95% of teens already owned or had access to a smartphone. And a 2017 Nielsen poll found that about 45% of kids who have phones got them between the ages of 10 and 12.

“My daughter just turned 10 and started middle school this year, which meant more independence and being on the bus with older kids,” says Jené L., a mom in Rotterdam, New York. “We wanted her to have a way to access us if she needed to.”

Many families rely on cell phones to keep schedules organized, do online research, communicate with each other and create peace of mind. After all, when kids have cell phones, parents or emergency services are a simple call or text away. But with all the positives of cell phones come negatives, too, including how much they can distract kids and that they may give unfettered access to questionable content on the internet. Many people find themselves wondering where to draw the line when it comes to how and where kids are allowed to use their phones. One of the biggest questions is: Should cell phones be allowed in schools?

There’s a case to be made both for and against having cell phones at schools. Here are the pros and cons, according to parents and experts.

Cell phones in school: The pros

Several reasons why cell phones should be allowed in school: 

Increased sense of safety

Many parents just feel safer knowing their child can reach them if they’re sick, if they have to stay after school or if there’s an emergency.

Kate M., a mom in Marshfield, Massachusetts, says she gave her son a phone in sixth grade, when he started staying after school four days a week to play sports. The phone isn’t just a convenience; it gives her peace of mind. 

“You never know what situations can arise,” she says. “And sometimes kids make questionable choices and end up where they shouldn’t be. With my son’s cell phone, I can track his location or he can call me if he is unexpectedly stranded.”

Learning benefits

While in the past, cell phones in schools were mostly considered a distraction, today they can actually play a role in teaching and learning. 

“Phones can be a great tool for the classroom — for research, taking polls, assessing progress and more — especially for middle and high school,” says Ria Schmidt, Ph.D., education consultant for Schmidt Education in Round Rock, Texas.

There’s no denying there are tons of learning apps on the market today. Some teachers also utilize apps like Socrative, where they can engage students, give quizzes, ask for student feedback and more.

Potential value

Jelterow Mckinnie Jr., an educator and author of “Diary of a Teacher” points out that the use of cell phones in school has the potential to save schools and/or families money. 

“Many [learning materials] may be searched and downloaded from the internet,” says Mckinnie. “Students are able to submit their work electronically and could decrease the cost for parents of having to purchase so many school supplies.”

A smartphone can not only replace paper and pen but sometimes a textbook and a computer printer (and pricey ink) since it can download and store information and documents. Plus, it may even be a good substitute for some calculators or tablets, says Mckinnie.

In fact, in a 2015 study by Pearson, 58% of students said they’d used a smartphone to complete schoolwork.

Prep for the future

We’re willing to bet that the future holds lots of opportunities for careers in tech, which means learning smart ways to use technology could potentially set kids up for success. 

“If the ultimate goal is to produce a person capable of being marketable in the future marketplace, then students need to be exposed to various ways to use technology to help them learn and complete their tasks,” says Mckinnie.

Opportunity to create good practices

A case could be made that instead of banning cell phones, schools should be teaching kids how to use them responsibly both in the classroom and socially. 

"Cell phone bans demonstrate a dereliction of the school's duty to equip students to participate thoughtfully and responsibly in modern society,” says Martin Moran, director of the Bennett Day Upper School in Chicago. “Given the power of technology and the ways in which it can be weaponized to spread disinformation, a school must not only allow cell phones in classes but also create a dedicated curriculum that helps students develop responsible use of these devices.”

Cell phones in school: The cons

Still, some parents and educators think cell phones should be put aside while kids focus on their classes. Here are a few reasons why:

Potential for distraction

“Our kids, the digital natives, are already more distracted than ever before, and because the brain was not meant to multitask, this makes it even more important that the phones stay at home or at the very least in the locker,” says Tere Linzey, Ph.D., an educational psychologist and founder of BrainMatterZ. “Retention depends on the ability to ‘attend’ to the subject at hand.”

Social skills

Linzey also points out that cell phones can take away from kids’ in-person socializing. 

“Employers and teachers mention to me all the time about the lack of social skills in [many] young people today,” she says. “The simple things like saying hello, introductions, being polite, manners and people skills are lacking today. In business they call it ‘soft skills,’ but students don’t have them if they are constantly behind a screen. What you practice is what your brain hardwires! Phones allow students to stay distracted without having human contact or conversations. If they don’t practice conversations, communication skills and social etiquette, then they do not acquire them — hence no ‘soft skills.’”

Mental health risks

“What we know now, after over 10 years of personal devices in the hands of children … is that they are becoming less educated, more anxious and chronically depressed,” says Lisa Strohman, J.D., Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and founder of Digital Citizen Academy

It’s not so much about school policy, she says, but rather that more time in front of a screen could be bad for kids’ mental health.

Researchers have seen a dramatic increase in rates of depression (52% rise), psychological distress and suicidal thoughts and behaviors among teens have increased dramatically over the last decade, and many experts connect that rise with the rise of cell phones and digital media.

A 2018 study found that teens who used screens seven or more hours per day were more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression than teens who only used them for an hour per day.

School hours could provide a large chunk of the day that they get a break from screens, which might have a positive impact on mental health.

Burden on teachers

Enforcing cell phone rules adds one more task to a teacher’s long to-do list. If kids are allowed phones in their classrooms, they may be tempted to use them to text their friends or cheat by looking up answers on the internet, creating a stressful situation. 

“The amount of time and escalation that results from a teacher trying to take a phone from a student can derail a whole class,” says Janet Ferone, president of Ferone Educational Consulting.

Cyberbullying

In a 2017 report, 14% of school students said they’d been cyberbullied in the previous year. And while in-person bullying is much more common, getting harassed over text or social media can follow kids wherever they go.

“Remember passing notes in school in eighth grade? Now they text,” says Jeanette D., a middle school teacher. “Remember when someone said something unflattering in school? Now it is shared schoolwide. Remember when the bus dropped you off at home and you could get a break from the drama? Now it is in your pocket 24/7.”

Middle ground and limits

Most parents, teachers and experts we spoke to don’t want to ban cell phones from school completely, but many have concerns about how they should be used that’s developmentally appropriate, offers balance to kids’ lives and allows them to learn and think in healthy ways.

“‘For me, the question isn't ‘should cell phones be allowed in schools?’ but rather, ‘how can schools manage the inevitability of cell phones in schools?’” says Ferone.

And thankfully, there are a few ways both schools and parents can find a middle ground:

Waiting for readiness

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says there’s no “right age” to give a child a cell phone and stress that it’s important parents understand the pros and cons of cell phone use before they decide to do so. However, an organization called Wait Until 8th asks parents to pledge to wait until eighth grade to give their kids cell phones for a host of reasons including their addictive nature, ability to distract and tendency to interfere with sleep. But it’s largely a family decision that may depend on many factors, including a child’s maturity level and specific family situations, suggests media and tech resource Common Sense.

No-frills ‘phones’

For parents not ready to give their kids an iPhone or Android, there are other options that can allow your child to communicate with you when they need to. For example, instead of a smartphone, Jené sends her daughter to school with a Gizmo watch, which allows a child to call parents and send text messages but not have access to the internet or apps.

Anna A., a mom in Winnetka, Illinois, gives her third-grader a Relay, which is a screen-free mobile phone that operates similarly to a walkie-talkie. This gives her peace of mind when her daughter walks and bikes to school with friends.

Schoolwide rules

Many schools set specific rules for when and where kids are able to use their cell phones.

“One solution has been that phones need to be kept out of sight and on silent, unless the teacher specifies that the phone can be used as part of the lesson for research and only when a sign stating ‘Electronics in Use for Learning’ is posted, so administrators walking by see that a teacher is not disregarding the rule,” says Ferone.

Classroom-specific rules

Teachers may have rules for their own classrooms that work for their teaching style and subject matter.

“In a classroom I was in recently, the teacher had a spot where students placed their phones when they came in,” says Schmidt. “When there was an opportunity to use them, they retrieved them. It worked really well.”

Carrie Piegza, an eighth grade science teacher in Las Vegas, has a unique policy that she says works for her. 

“I personally allow cell phones for use as calculators, timers and music players [in my classroom],” says Carrie. “If they are caught doing anything else, the phone gets confiscated. Quite a few teachers disagree with my music use, but I find it helps many of them focus better when working on individual assignments.”

Parent regulation: The AAP recommends parents set rules and limits to kids’ cell phone use, so they’re balancing screen time with other activities and because cell phone use can interfere with sleep. Finding the right rules and boundaries may vary from family to family, but it’s good to be clear and find ways to enforce the rules if they’re broken.

“I have it set that most apps on my son’s phone are not accessible after 9 p.m. and before 7 a.m.,” says Kate. “And I have to physically input the password for new apps. I do occasionally take away phone privileges by changing the password. He can still accept incoming calls and make an emergency call, if necessary.”

The consensus

In the end, it’s likely that the answer to the debate is finding the right balance and for parents and teachers to keep a close watch on how and when kids are using their phones. Adding instruction on how to use cell phones safely and properly is a great idea, too.

As Moran suggests, "Schools must pair a policy by which students are allowed to use their cell phones with a dedicated curricular program that teaches them not only all the benefits of mobile technology, but also how to avoid the myriad dangers that come with an unexamined digital existence.”

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