Schools, Students, and Smartphones: Should Your School District Allow, Ban, or Restrict Student Smartphone Use?
January 14th, 2020
If you needed to contact your parents while you were in school, what did you do? Your issue most likely had to wait until you got home. If your school canceled your varsity tennis match, what did you do? You probably just rode the bus home and told your parents later or perhaps you used a payphone. Today, with smartphones, students can communicate with just about anyone instantaneously. In fact, the vast majority of Americans – 96% – now own a cellphone of some kind. And the share of Americans that own smartphones is now 81%, up from just 35% in Pew Research Center’s first survey of smartphone ownership conducted in 2011.1 So, soccer match canceled? Text mom. Forgot your lunch? Call dad.
In an era where we are extremely dependent upon mobile devices as our primary source for telecommunications, it seems as though schools must allow students to carry smartphones with them, right?
The debate relative to whether schools should prohibit smartphone use is a hot topic in districts across the country. What follows are some of the critical considerations that are up for discussion—and that may be headed for your community next.
The Arguments For Banning Smartphones
- Phones Cause Distractions. The average smartphone user has anywhere from 60 to 90 mobile applications installed on his/her phone, using around 30 applications monthly, and launching nine each day. With so many engagement tools, games, and sources of information right in a young person’s palm, many of which issue alerts and calls for attention throughout the day, the number of distractions battling calculus and world history for students’ attention have never been higher.
- Eliminating Smartphones in the Classroom Could Boost Academic Outcomes. According to a study conducted by the London School of Economics, students in schools that banned smartphone use earned higher test scores, particularly typically low-performing students.2 These results are underscored by another research study that found that students unable to access their smartphone on school property took 62 percent more notes, recalled more detailed class lecture information, and scored a full letter grade-and-a-half higher on multiple-choice tests compared to students able to use their smartphone phone during the day.3
- Breaking the Digital Addiction Could Have Positive Benefits Outside the Classroom. Parents in support of smartphone bans who see their children addicted to their devices hope that forced separation from technology will lessen the dependence. The hope is that once young people realize all there is to do and see in the world around them—things as simple as in-person interactions—that they won’t rush back to their apps once the school day ends.
- Eliminating Phones During School Hours is an Over-adjustment. Could there be a solution to mitigating student distractions and better engaging students in the classroom that does not involve separating them from their needed technology? Could test scores and attention rates improve just as significantly if schools adopt different teaching modalities or approaches that foster higher levels of interest and attention? Could smartphones be a red herring for a broader systemic issue about school district academic performance?
- Smartphones Can Be Learning Tools. The reality of Google and the vastness of the Internet means that how students research topics and learn about the world around them has changed. In 2012, after 244 years of existence, Encyclopaedia Britannica ceased production. Particularly in districts with limited computer and technology resources in schools and at homes, students may rely on smartphones to conduct research, complete homework, and even access assignments and test scores on school portals. Advocates for student smartphone use also point out that mobile devices teach young people to be self-sufficient and gain confidence in finding solutions to their own needs.
- Smartphones Could Come in Handy in an Emergency. At a time when the number of landlines in homes and offices across the nation are dwindling, how can students communicate vital information with their parents regarding their whereabouts and safety without a cellular device? If a student were to find himself/herself involved in a bad situation with peers, abduction, or another emergency, what resources would the student have to seek help without a smartphone?
- A Smartphone Ban is Not Easily Enforceable. An answer to the previous concern relative to student safety may be to allow students to carry their smartphone with them to school, but not use it—keeping the device in their backpack or locker during the day, including during recess and lunch. Such a policy would still provide students with a communication channel to reach their parents as needed or in an emergency. Some practicians, however, including those who have attempted a ban, argue that such a requirement is not enforceable. The temptation to utilize their smartphones will leave students always trying to bend the rules, or break them entirely, which means the handheld devices will continue to be distractions and interruptions.
Learning From Other School Districts
As a school leader in charge of deciding what to do about smartphones, you may be wondering what other school districts are doing. Here’s what we found:
- Students at St. Thomas High School on Montreal’s West Island have new require students to them to turn off their phones and put them in their lockers all day, even during lunch. If the policy is not respected, the device is “withheld or removed” from the student.4
- 2019 California state law allows school district boards to set their own rules “limiting the possession and use of smartphones and other “electronic signaling devices” on their campuses and at school-sponsored events.5 Regardless of what each district decides, state law says that students are allowed to use their devices in emergency situations, with doctor permission, or if the use/possession of a smartphone is required by a student’s education program.
- One teacher at a secondary school in Lincolnshire, incorporates phones into her classroom since her school doesn’t have the funds for classroom tablets or computers. Students are encouraged to use their phones for research and problem solving.6
- The Forest Hills Public School Superintendent in Grand Rapids, Michigan enacted a full ban of smartphones after allowing them in the classroom for some time. Read more to find out what they learned from this experiment.
Approaching the Smartphone Debate in Your District
Ban, restrict or allow? That is the question!
If your district is among those looking to improve classroom attentiveness and academic outcomes, consider beginning your consideration with an open dialogue with faculty, staff, parents, and students. Before establishing any policies, it will be critical to assess your stakeholders’ tolerance for such a restriction. Understanding all perspectives, concerns, as well as other possible factors leading to academic underperformance can help you put impactful policies in place that will keep students’ focus where it needs to be—on their education.
What is your district doing?
We’d love to hear from you. Please share your ideas with our network of school leaders across the country by commenting below or sending us an email at info@SuperEval.com.
1. “Demographics of Mobile Device Ownership and Adoption in the United States.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, 12 June 2019, www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/mobile/.
2. Hess, Abigail. “Research Continually Shows How Distracting Cell Phones Are-so Some Schools Want to Ban Them.” CNBC, CNBC, 2 Apr. 2019, www.cnbc.com/2019/01/18/research-shows-that-cell-phones-distract-students–so-france-banned-them-in-school–.html.↩
3. Kuznekoff, Kuznekoff, and Scott Titsworth. “The Impact of Mobile Phone Usage on Student Learning.” Taylor & Francis, Feb. 2013, www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03634523.2013.767917.↩
4. Yoon, Jennifer. “Montreal High School Bans Use of Cellphones on School Property – Even during Recess and Lunch | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 4 Sept. 2019, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/saint-thomas-cell-phone-ban-1.5269345.↩
5. Lothspeich, Jennifer. “2020 New Laws: What’s New in Education in California.” CBS8, 20 Dec. 2019, www.cbs8.com/article/news/local/new-california-laws-for-2020-whats-new-for-students-and-schools/509-820a72dd-15fd-49e4-8767-4bf695af7371.↩
6. Ryder, Sherie. “Smartphones in School: Ban, Restrict or Allow?” BBC News, BBC, 3 Feb. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/education-47101875.