More Georgia schools try to address a classroom distraction: Cellphones

Marietta school board members raise their hand in support of a staff proposal to limit cellphone use by middle school students during its meeting on June 18, 2024. (Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Hendren for the AJC

Credit: Ben Hendren for the AJC

Marietta school board members raise their hand in support of a staff proposal to limit cellphone use by middle school students during its meeting on June 18, 2024. (Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Marietta parent Cynthia DuBose said she doesn’t think many other parents know just how much of a problem comes from their kids’ use of cellphones in school.

The distractions are cause for concern, she said, even for her 12-year-old daughter who doesn’t even have a cellphone yet.

Instead, she has a tablet — but even that can cause issues.

“There are days where, when she gets home and is finally able to look at her tablet, she has like 100 text messages,” DuBose said, some from classmates throughout the school day.

Marietta parent Cynthia DuBose applauds the school district's plan to keep cellphones out of middle schoolers' hands during the school day. Her daughter, Caitlyn DuBose, 12, is heading to seventh grade at Marietta Middle School this year. (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Contributed

icon to expand image

Credit: Contributed

From Los Angeles to Florida and communities in between, many schools across America have enacted policies in recent months to curb cellphone use and limit student access to social media in classrooms.

The national wave has surfaced in Georgia. The school board in Liberty County, near Savannah, this fall will have a new policy to keep cellphones out of the hands of middle and high school students during classes. Midtown High School in Atlanta last month announced a similar ban for this school year. The Marietta school board voted unanimously Tuesday to limit cellphone and smartwatch use by middle school students in the coming school year. Decatur High School’s principal alerted parents Thursday of a plan to limit student cellphone use in classes this fall. Students will be allowed to access their phones during class changes and at lunch. Cherokee County’s school board on Thursday adopted consistent guidance for cellphone use that they must be stored out of sight, but may be used with direction from the teacher and authorization from the principal.

Also, Pace Academy, a private school in Atlanta’s Buckhead district, is tightening rules for personal devices this school year. Students in elementary and middle school may not bring personal devices to school, but students in most grades will be able to use school-issued tablets. High school students can bring devices, but teachers and administrators may determine how often students use them.

The recent movement gained momentum after a study last year by Common Sense Media and the University of Michigan found most students receive several hundred notifications per day on their phones. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s new book, “The Anxious Generation,” which makes the case against devices for children, is also being used by educators and parents in their oral and written arguments against phones in school. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy announced last week he wants a warning label on social media platforms, advising parents that use of the social media platforms could endanger adolescents’ mental health.

The latest results of the Program for International Student Assessment found students worldwide who use smartphones at school were more susceptible to losing focus in class and falling behind.

Marietta’s policy begins at the start of the upcoming school year, on Aug. 1. It’s a move that many parents, like DuBose, are applauding.

“When it was first presented, I absolutely supported it. I thought it was a great idea,” DuBose said.

Breaking the habit

Efforts to keep cellphones out of the classroom aren’t new. The Cobb County School District, in 1997, put them on the list of forbidden items, which then included beepers. Marietta had a similar policy.

Having a policy and enforcing a policy are two different things, school administrators discovered.

Some parents said it was important for their children to have cellphones in case of an emergency as school shootings became more frequent occurrences. As manufacturers developed smartphones, many educators took advantage of the technology, using the devices for classroom exercises.

Some parents want their children to have cellphones for safety and communication, and school administrators say bans could be difficult to enforce. (Iakov Filimonov/Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: TNS

icon to expand image

Credit: TNS

Atlanta Public Schools’ code of conduct allows students to possess phones and other electronic devices, but prohibits their use during the school day. However, Midtown High School Principal Betsy Bockman said when in-person classes resumed after the COVID-19 pandemic, it was difficult for students to break the habit of staring at their phones.

“Kids that are walking down the hall, they’re not talking to each other, they’re not saying, ‘Hello’ … to teachers, to adults, they’re completely focused, head down on their screens,” Bockman said.

She polled teachers last spring about their biggest challenges. In a letter to parents, Bockman said teachers overwhelmingly responded that policing cellphone usage and competing with phones for student attention were their biggest hurdles.

“We just need to get back to a greater level of support for teaching and learning,” Bockman said.

The no smartphone pledge

Ben Nemo has similar concerns. His daughter will start sixth grade at Howard Middle School in Atlanta in August. He and his wife decided a while ago that she wouldn’t get a smartphone for several years. Then Nemo read Haidt’s book, which prompted him to reach out to other parents.

“The crux of his book is when smartphones became available … parents have over-regulated real-life interaction terms of how freely (kids) can go out and about ... or be independent out in the real world, but (they have) under-regulated online life before we knew what we know now.”

Howard Middle School parent Ben Nemo has convinced several dozen parents to sign a “no smartphone pledge,” meaning they won’t give their middle schooler a smartphone next year. Contributed photo.

Credit: Contributed

icon to expand image

Credit: Contributed

What we know now, Haidt claims, is that increased use of social media and smartphones has led to increased rates of depression and anxiety among adolescents.

Nemo, who used to lead an ad sales team at Facebook, reached out to other Howard families and convinced 55 of them to sign a “no smartphone pledge,” meaning they won’t give their middle schooler a smartphone next year.

“I just felt kind of it was a great opportunity to speak up and make sure other parents knew about the research so they could make more educated decisions,” Nemo said.

Meanwhile, some school districts have taken moderate stances. Fulton County Schools, for example, lets students use smartphones or other personal devices in grades 6-12 if instructed by a staff member. However, devices are not allowed at all in elementary school. In Gwinnett County, the state’s largest school district, officials list a discipline infraction for unauthorized use of a phone or other device, and some individual schools list rules specifically about phones. Principals do have some discretion regarding enforcement.

High school hurdles

As a part of the new policy in Marietta, students will be required to lock their phones and smartwatches in a magnetic pouch during the school day. The pouch, made by the company Yondr, can only be unlocked with a magnet that teachers will have access to. Midtown High and Liberty County are planning to use the same pouches. Marietta officials say they are taking the phones after the first violation.

Jeff Hubbard, a retired middle school teacher from Cobb County, thinks that it’s the right move. As students get older, cellphone usage, he said, becomes a bigger hurdle.

“As the children start to age a little bit and they start getting their cellphones, they start discovering there’s a whole other world out there that they can spend time on,” Hubbard said. Students can be easily distracted in something else that’s more engaging, he said, which means teachers will have to get creative.

Marietta officials noted that the policy could be extended to high schools because of similar problems, but this school year, the focus is on middle grades.

Currently, Marietta teachers have varying cellphone policies, leaving the rules inconsistent. With the new policy, everyone will follow the same rule.

Addressing emergency concerns

Parents who attended last week’s meeting shared that they were excited about the new policy.

Kayla Sargent, a parent and executive director of a parent group, Marietta in the Middle, spoke to board members and said that initial reaction was “overwhelmingly positive,” according to a parent survey they conducted.

But, there was still hesitation, she said.

Kayla Sargent addresses the Marietta school board during its June 18, 2024, meeting. The board unanimously passed a ban on cellphones during the school day for middle school students. (Ben Hendren for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Hendren

icon to expand image

Credit: Ben Hendren

“There seems to be significant anxiety about the implementation of the policy,” Sargent said. “There are concerns about the policy being implemented equitably, consistently and without drama.”

At Midtown High, students will be able to use district-issued Chromebooks. Bockman hopes that will assuage parents’ concerns about how to reach their children in case of an emergency or urgent situation.

“Students still will be able to communicate with their parents, and vice versa, through their Chromebooks,” she said. “We’re not cutting them off from communicating with their parents at all.”

For students, a punishment or a break?

However, Piper Boatwright, who will be a senior at Midtown High this year, thinks it will be a tough adjustment. She takes notes on her phone and says she and other students listen to music on their devices while working on assignments.

“I personally think the policy is maybe overstepping a little bit,” she said. “I understand why they’re doing (it), because it makes sense to just have a blanket policy for all students. But I ... don’t find my cellphone use a problem in class. I’ve never been reprimanded for it. So it feels like a punishment for a lot of students like me who aren’t as affected by being able to use their phones during school time.”

Piper Boatwright will be a senior at Midtown High School in the fall. She's not a fan of the smartphone crackdown, but understands why school leaders took action. (Courtesy photo)

Credit: contributed

icon to expand image

Credit: contributed

Boatwright said some teachers incorporate smartphones into class. For example, some teachers allow the use of foreign language apps to help students practice, she said. The new approach, she said, will target all students instead of those who can’t moderate device usage.

“I would prefer a policy that focused on maybe just using Yondr pouches after a certain number of write-ups for phone use because most kids ... do pay attention and do their work on time,” Boatwright said.

Mary Kate Ninness, who is starting eighth grade at Marietta Middle School this year, said she believes the new policy should be a big help to students like her who don’t have phones. Ninness has a smartwatch to contact her mom throughout the day.

While problems with cellphones in the classroom aren’t major, it is still a bit of a distraction, the 13-year-old said.

“Sometimes, they would take videos or pictures of each other or, like, look at funny memes, YouTube,” Ninness said. She also added TikTok to the list that’s grabbing the attention of her classmates.

Mary Kate Ninness, who is starting eighth grade at Marietta Middle School this year, said phones and smartwatches are a bit of a distraction in class, and the new policy should be a big help to students like her who don’t have phones.

Credit: Contributed

icon to expand image

Credit: Contributed

The phones are also making it difficult for students to actually interact with one another, Ninness said. Last year, she said, after students finished an assignment, the class would have a bit of a break, but some classmates would go straight to their phones.

“Every once in a while, the teacher would say, ‘OK, y’all can have, like, 10 minutes of phone time or something,’” Ninness said. “As a person without a phone, that was hard for me because I was just sitting there without anything to do.”

While Boatwright will miss listening to music and being able to communicate easily and quickly, she said being without her device during the school day won’t be a tragedy.

“I don’t need to check my phone a lot during the day,” she said. “I keep joking that I’ll buy a Walkman or something.”

Staff writers Cassidy Alexander and Josh Reyes contributed to this article.