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Do Smartphones Belong in Schools? A Look at Different Approaches

By Jennifer Snelling
January 8, 2024
Cellphones in school

At Florida’s East River High School in Orlando, students bring their phones to school but put them away when the first bell rings. The phones stay stowed while kids are in class and even during transitions and at lunch — until the final bell rings for dismissal. It’s all part of a Florida state law, passed in 2023, designed to keep students focused on school.

East River Principal Rebecca Watson says students have adapted to the no-phones rule during the academic day, but as soon as the bell rings, she watches students walk across the courtyard to the buses, heads looking down at their devices.

It wasn’t always this easy, Watson says. During the first few days of the policy, the school confiscated about 150 phones a day, but that number has dipped to one or two a day.

“Do students go to the bathroom to check their phones? Probably,” Watson acknowledges. “But how has it impacted day-to-day life within classrooms? Students are way more engaged.”

As school cell phone bans take hold across the globe, some parents and educators are cheering the policy while other lament that these powerful tools should be incorporated into school life much like they are ubiquitous in the workplace. 

Cell phones in schools is a topic of debate around the world

At East River High, students keep their phones in their backpacks stored at the front of the classroom. If a teacher wants students to use their phones to photograph a project or do some research, the teacher gets clearance from the principal ahead of time.

According to Watson, one of the biggest benefits is increased student interaction during lunch. Instead of staring down at their screens, kids participate in UNO tournaments or throw a football in the courtyard.

“I do think the policy has been positive,” Watson says. “It’s all in the presentation and making sure everyone works in the same direction, helping students with self-regulation.”

That sounds like a successful policy, and many places are following suit. A recent report from UNESCO found that nearly one in four countries has enacted laws or policies banning or restricting student cellphone use in schools. In October, dozens of researchers sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona asking the DOE to issue an advisory urging schools nationwide to ban cell phones.

There is evidence that the mere presence of a cell phone, even when it is not being used, can impact focus and learning ability. Researchers Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff and Scott Titsworth found that students not using their mobile phones wrote down 62% more information in their notes while watching a video lecture and scored a full letter grade and half higher on the material. Common Sense Media tracked 200 young people and found they typically received almost 60 cellphone notifications during the school day.

Still, phones are a reality of modern life. They are a powerful tool almost all students carry around in their pockets. A phone is a calculator, a camera, a way to communicate, and a tool to research any topic. Phones are also the technology that students are most comfortable with and the device often the most convenient to use. By ignoring this reality, schools may miss opportunities to teach self-regulation, technology literacy and digital citizenship. Could schools work with the technology instead of against it?

Victor Pereira, faculty co-chair of Teaching and Teacher Leadership and lecturer on Education at Harvard, says it is worth considering.

“I don’t know if I would be for or against allowing cell phones in classrooms,” he says, “other than it’s important that we’re developing a tech-literate society.”

What do school cell phone policies look like?

In a recent Speak Up survey, 80% of teachers think phones are a distraction for students. Just over 70% of administrators say it is difficult for students to manage their smartphones responsibly.

Regarding schoolwide policies, only 28% of respondents said students were not allowed to use or have phones on campus at any time, whereas 11% said that as long as it’s safe, the campus is completely open to phones. The majority of respondents said that phones are allowed on campus with some restrictions, such as when teachers are monitoring them, when they are being used for learning in the classroom, or during lunch or other breaks.

About 45% of administrators responded that many teachers still haven’t decided how to leverage phones in the classroom. This number could reflect that since the pandemic, most districts have gone 1:1, so teachers prefer students to use their school-issued devices rather than their phones.

Schools with bans generally ask students to keep phones in lockers, backpacks or magnetized pouches at the front of the classroom. Some schools use a red, yellow and green light system that lets students know when phones are acceptable in class, when they should only be used for educational purposes and when they are prohibited.

A more flexible approach to cell phones in school

Oregon’s South Eugene High School has a policy that students must keep their cell phones turned off and out of sight during class unless otherwise specified by teacher policy. Ninth-grader Holden Majors is well aware of the policy but says teachers often ask him to use his phone for classwork.

Bobbie Willis is one such teacher. She asks students in her newspaper and yearbook classes to use their phones to record interviews and take photos and videos. If a student's computer dies, they can access the school LMS and Google Drive from their phone. The convenience makes her wonder if the phones are more valuable than the school-issued laptop.

Majors ran into trouble when his dad took away his phone as a punishment. A few days later, his dad noticed some missing assignments. Majors argued he could not turn in the assignments because his teachers wanted higher-quality photos taken with a phone rather than the camera on his school-issued laptop.

In addition, Majors needs his phone to check out books in the school library or access resources through a QR code in a weekly advisory class. Majors took issue with the policy in an op-ed for Willis’ News and Media class.

“A well-known rule at school is that we’re not allowed to be on our phones. Teachers want us to put them away and stay off them during the school hours,” wrote Majors. “However, these punishments backfire when the school makes us use them to turn in work.”

Given the lack of consistent enforcement of the policy, Majors says it should be rewritten to reflect reality. While she acknowledges that phones can be a distraction, Willis says there is value in using phones for real-life learning, particularly about media literacy.

Willis used to scoff when students confessed to using TikTok as a news source. Then, Russia attacked Ukraine, and her students showed her accounts of Ukrainian teens sharing their first-hand experience of the invasion. She used it as a springboard to talk about using social media to cultivate unbiased, fact-based news sources in a format students will use.

“So many young people have gravitated toward those platforms,” she says. “It’s almost like serious news outlets don’t have a choice if they want to meet people where they are at for accessing content,” she says. “My hope is always that kids figure out some control over their phone rather than allowing the phone to have control over them.”

Watson admits that Florida's policy somewhat hampers the teaching of media literacy. Sometimes, students post on club and organization social media accounts, as long as an adult regulates it.

“I do think there’s not enough education about digital footprint and being a responsible media user,” she says. “I speak with my students about that every chance I get.”

Phones also have the potential to contribute to social drama among teens. Then, schools have to deal with the drama. This becomes especially tricky if fights at school are filmed and posted on social media.

In schools where phones are allowed, teachers are more likely to teach about digital literacy, mental wellness and screen use, digital citizenship, and being a good friend online. These conversations come up naturally when phones are a part of the school day.

Low-income families are more likely to have a cell phone than a home computer or laptop. Learning how to fill out a job application on a phone or respond to an employer’s text can be particularly helpful for students who are part of marginalized populations.

“Learning how to use the phone in a productive way can benefit them in the long term as far as having more opportunities,” says Liz Kolb, author of Cell Phones in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Educators.

Cell phones are tools for connection

Even with the camera and the web-surfing ability, a phone is still primarily a tool for connection. It’s this capability that can make phones most valuable for students.

When Mike Fauteux co-founded GiveThx, an app that provides a structured way for teachers and students to express gratitude, he made some intentional choices to discourage some of the pitfalls that addictive social media sites have. For instance, the app is web-based and does not have a mobile app. Students can only send one message at a time. The intention is for the app to be used on laptops while at school.

“We made intentional design decisions to help kids be their best selves on their devices,” Fauteux says.

That is still the intention, but Fauteux says there are some surprise advantages to using the app on the phone. Fauteux tested the app at a school where the entire student body met in the gym each Friday to take turns shouting out thanks to each other.

A senior student said he wanted to shout out Ms. Riviera, the office manager. Students at this school were not allowed to use their phones during school hours, but before anyone could remind them of the policy, the students pulled out their phones and thanked Ms. Riviera. She received 500 thank-you notes that day.

In this situation, the phone was more convenient and accessible than a laptop. Another benefit to using the phone, says Fauteux, is that it allows students to form positive habits. If a student pulls out their phone and sends a thank you while riding home on the bus, that’s a positive.

Student phones are a constant connection to their families and friends, and that effect has only grown since the pandemic. 

“The cell phone was access to learning for many, many students who were joining Zoom from bedrooms. Many were using phones because they had to share a computer with parents or siblings,” Pereira says. “It became this biological-technology hybrid. It became an appendage.”

If access to that phone makes students feel safer and more connected to their families, that is something policymakers should consider. Growing evidence shows that social media platforms are particularly helpful for young people who need resources or support, especially marginalized groups, such as students of color and LGBTQ students. Students with attention deficit disorders or other neurological conditions sometimes rely on phones to help them engage better.

"I see both sides of the issue, but we have to be careful about completely banning cell phones and not acknowledging that they are important parts of our students’ and families’ lives,” says Kolb. “Clearly, there are distractions, but these are the tools our students have the most access to, so we want to create a balance.”

One of biggest obstacles when districts attempt to enact bans is pushback from parents. Many kids have jobs or family responsibilities requiring them to communicate during school. Or, in case of an emergency, it feels intrusive to go through a teacher or administrator to contact your teen. Worst of all, no parent wants to be cut off from contacting their child in the event of a school shooting.

“The phone is a link between parents and children,” Pereira says. “Parents feel a level of safety being able to communicate with their child in an emergency. Imagine your child’s school is on the live news, and you can’t contact them because they don’t have a phone.”

Designing a cell phone policy

There are some big-picture considerations when designing a policy, whether for a state, district, school or individual classroom. Here are three of them.

1. Consider school culture.

Cell phones can impact school culture for good or for bad. For instance, bullying, harassment, posting harmful videos to social media can negatively impact how a student feels at school.

Watson says physical altercations at school have dropped significantly since Florida enacted its ban, partly because kids can't communicate with each other during the day to meet up for a fight.

On the other hand, enforcing harsh punishments for students who use their phones could increase school suspensions or other extreme disciplinary measures. Some kids may be able to focus better, but others may miss class due to suspensions.

2. Apply policies consistently.

One of the most significant benefits of the policy in Florida is that the blanket policy allows for consistency between districts. If a parent is angry about a ban, Watson reminds them it is a state law.

“Every district struggles, but the ones that have done this the best are the ones that are clear and consistent,” she says, and those that include teachers in the implementation. "Allow teachers to have a little choice about how and if they want to use cellphones or not.”

3. Engage the school community.

Some cellphone bans have been repealed because they are unpopular with parents and students. While many parents want students to have less screen time, it’s a significant tradeoff if they can’t contact their kids.

Florida’s Orange County Public Schools, which includes East River High School, has a policy that goes even further than the state law. The district bans students from using phones during the entire school day, not just during class time.

To get parents onboard, East River is soliciting feedback from the community. Mostly, says Watson, the feedback has been positive. Some parents are concerned about not being able to get in touch with their students. Watson says the problem is easily solved if the student explains to their teacher that they need to contact their parents. Most of the time, the request is granted.

"Any policy, cell phone ban or not, works best when fully supported and enacted by leadership,” says Kolb, “when teachers feel supported by leadership and students know that rewards and consequences are consistent across the board. Make sure everyone understands the policy, communicates it well, clearly follows through, and is very consistent. Support the teachers that have to support the policy.”