Opinion: Should more schools banish cellphones from classrooms?

Fulton toughens policies on smartphones to reduce student distractions

Social scientists may be divided on whether cellphones are a boon or a bane to students. However, most educators are not conflicted, calling smartphones a source of distraction and challenge in their classrooms.

In a 2020 EdWeek Research Center survey, 85% of teachers and principals agreed fully or in part that mobile devices had diminished the attention span of today’s students.

Such concerns underpin the recent decision by Fulton County Schools to clamp down on phone usage in school. Next year, elementary students in the district will be prohibited from using phones during the school day. They can still have them on campus — a concession to parents who want to reach their children at all times.

ExploreFulton schools to restrict cellphones

Middle and high school students in Fulton will not be able to use phones during class without the teacher’s permission, but they can access them during non-instructional time.

Fulton said its new policy reflects concern from principals and teachers over increasing discipline problems and classroom management challenges. “Some of these devices have been very big distractions for our students during the day,” said Chris Matthews, assistant superintendent of student services, at a recent school board meeting.

This issue resonates with parents and teachers. The responses to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution story announcing Fulton’s new cellphone policy included parents who pointed out virtual classes during the pandemic worsened children’s screen dependency. “The closing of schools during the pandemic did not help screen addiction. I would also like to see teachers do more paper pencil work and less Chromebook, especially at younger ages. Our kids are missing so many skills because of technology. Moving everything online has made it worse,” said a parent.

The general sentiment from teachers was that any new restrictions on cellphones only mean more work for them. “Unless you’ve been in a classroom, you can’t imagine how much time teachers spend monitoring this. Students are insanely addicted to screens and parents contribute by interrupting class with streams of texts they expect their kids to answer. I’m afraid there is no getting the horse back in the barn,” said a veteran high school teacher.

I’ve never dealt with phones in classrooms, but I have as a parent chaperone on many field trips where students mislaid cellphones, dropped and broke them or lost the chargers. On an overnight sports trip to a stressful competition, the other chaperones and I assumed an earlier drama in the day would subside once team members were ensconced in their rooms, forgetting the power of social media to not only prolong the discord, but enlarge the audience.

American parents once thought twice about buying an expensive phone for 13-year-olds. No longer. Common Sense Media found that more than half of U.S. kids get their own smartphone by age 11.

COVID-19 increased children’s reliance on smartphones. In a Pew Research Center survey on kids and screen time in April of 2021, 71% of parents of kids aged 11 or younger said their child used a smartphone, up from 63% the year before. Among parents of children under the age of 5, 55% reported their child used or interacted with a smartphone last year.

The research on the impact of cellphones on children is the proverbial mixed bag. A 2020 study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found few compelling links between use of digital technology and adolescents’ mental health. The researchers suggested modern technologies could serve as a safety net for teens and enhance their relationships by enabling them to share intimacy, show affection and arrange meetups and activities.

Certainly, phones allowed kids to stay in touch with friends and classmates during the pandemic when many schools went to remote schooling.

Yet, despite all that connectivity, anxiety, depression and suicide are surging among children and teens. The Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from January to June 2021, found 37% of students at public and private high schools reported their mental health was not good most or all of the time during the pandemic.

Forty-four percent of high schoolers in the CDC survey said that, in the previous 12 months, they had felt sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row to the degree that it interfered with their usual activities.

One of the leading voices of concern over adolescents and technology is Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Her research suggests rising adolescent rates of depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, suicide attempts, and suicides dating back to 2012 owe in part to social media usage, especially among girls.

Her study concludes: “When most adolescents opened social media accounts and became daily users in the years around 2012, teen social life changed even for adolescents who spent no or little time on social media. Why did rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide attempts begin rising among adolescents around 2012? For now, social media should remain on the list of possible explanations.”