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6 ways to help students manage their smartphones

By Liz Kolb
September 11, 2018
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Helping students manage smartphone use might not seem like the type of subject that schools should be teaching. But given how widespread cell phone use is among teens and how broadly devices affect academic performance, mental health and a teen’s emotional well being, it’s not a bad idea to embed cell phone management advice into student discussions and conversations.

Managing digital life in a safe, legal and ethical way is a key component of the ISTE Standards for Students, and helping students learn this concept is a competency embedded in the ISTE Standards for Educators

Here are some tips for helping teens learn the ropes of appropriate cell phone use:   

Encourage human-to-human conversation. Remind students to speak to each other instead of texting across the table. This helps develop empathy and increases their ability to focus or give attention to one thing. In fact, 43 percent of teenagers wish they would unplug more often and 45 percent get frustrated when their friends are texting while they are trying to talk to them.

Discourage students from asking “Siri” for the answer. Have students figure out the problem first, and then use their cell phone to double-check answers or ask a friend how they got the answer. This encourages critical thinking and collaboration over consumption of answers.

Encourage students to put phones away at the lunch table. Suggest they make a pact with friends that the first person to grab their device has to through the lunch garbage away. 

Teach students to endure an awkward or boring situation without using their phones. Phones can become a crutch. Suggest they fight this habit by finding other ways to pass time. While waiting in line, they could read a book, make a to-do list or converse with the person next to them.

Warn students to put the phone away when their mood darkens. If students start to feel lonely, anxious or depressed, tell them to turn off their devices and find a friend or adult to talk to in person.

Encourage students to take 24 hours to respond to an uncomfortable text or post. Students can write a response to an uncomfortable text, email or post, but not actually send it. Instead wait 24 hours and re-read their response, asking themselves some questions: Is this something that will contribute to my positive footprint? Is this something I would be proud to have as part of my permanent record? Should I talk to the person face-to-face instead?

The Citizen standard within the ISTE Standards for Educators instructs teachers to mentor students in safe, legal and ethical practices. Mentorship doesn't mean taking phones away. It's about helping students navigate the digital terrain and find a healthy balance. 

Liz Kolb is a clinical associate professor at The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She is the author of the ISTE books Learning First, Technology Second (2017), Toys to Tools: Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education (2008), and Cell Phones in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for the K-12 Educator (2011). She has published numerous articles and book chapters on new technologies and education in prominent publications, such as Education Leadership, Scholastic, Edutopia, and the ISTE Blog. Liz is a former social studies and computer technology teacher who spent four years as a technology coordinator and integration specialist in Ohio.

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