Some lawmakers threaten to ban kids’ cell phones if schools don’t.

Cellphone restraint among students at David H. Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri, is emphasized, requiring them to conceal their devices in class. Nevertheless, the teachers, including science instructor Noelle Gilzow, find it challenging to enforce the regulation against the students’ incessant urge to use their phones constantly.

Impounding the violators’ phones and depositing them in a container dubbed “phone jail” on her desk is Gilzow’s method. However, she recognizes the difficulty of competing with entertainment platforms like Netflix.

“I cannot compete with Netflix,” she admitted.

The majority of U.S. K-12 public schools, as indicated by a report from the academic year 2021-2022, enforce restrictions on non-academic cellphone usage. Yet, only 43% of public high schools uphold such regulations. The enforcement of these so-called bans, like at Hickman High, is frequently lenient or non-existent.

Florida’s milestone legislation mandated all public schools to prohibit cellphone usage during classes, a pioneering move among states. Now, governors and legislators in several other states are advocating for similar policies, whether through persuasion or legislation.

Recently, Indiana Republican Governor Eric Holcomb signed a bill necessitating school districts to restrict cellphone activity during instructional time, with specified exceptions. Comparable bills are progressing in other states like Oklahoma, Kansas, and Vermont.

Connecticut Democratic Governor Ned Lamont commended schools in his state that have imposed restrictions on cellphone use. He has also proposed legislation directing the state’s board of education to adopt a standardized policy.

“Social media is often anti-social, and too much smartphone makes you stupid,” stated Lamont during his State of the State address this year.

Utah’s Governor Spencer Cox, a Republican, in January, urged school leaders statewide to eliminate cellphones from classes.

“Stowing cellphones in backpacks or lockers during class enables students to fully engage in lessons, participate in discussions, and forge relationships with peers,” Cox emphasized in an op-ed piece published in the Deseret News. “Our students deserve every advantage, and removing cellphones from learning time is one established method to help our children thrive.”

Advocates for such measures, including Cox, cite research indicating that simply the presence of a cellphone is a detractor. They argue that by excluding them from classrooms, academic performance can improve significantly, bullying incidents could decline, and students’ mental well-being can be enhanced.

Unsurprisingly, students are often resistant to relinquishing their phones, with a significant portion of opposition stemming from parents who seek constant communication with their children, particularly in emergencies.

“I appreciate that she’s always reachable. I want to keep a watchful eye on her at all times,” mentioned Elisabeth Rice from Portland, Oregon, a mother with a 14-year-old daughter. “If she ever leaves the school premises, her phone will always be by her side, right?”

Oregon delegates the authority to establish cellphone guidelines to individual school districts. The high school Rice’s daughter attends maintains a “silent and away” protocol for phones in class; however, the requirement for storing the device in a pouch or signal-blocking container isn’t mandatory, contrary to other institutions.

“We’ve witnessed schools dealing with emergencies,” Rice remarked. “I prefer to have direct contact with my child to ensure the safest course of action.”

Minimizing disruptions

For Indiana Republican State Senator Jeff Raatz, a principal sponsor of the proposed ban in his state, the rationale behind removing phones from classrooms boils down to a single word: distraction.

Reflecting on a civics session at a Henry County high school last autumn, Raatz noted that the students exhibited exceptional attentiveness. It took some time for him to discern the reason behind their focus.

“Weeks passed before I realized that not a single cellphone was in sight. I thought, ‘Why isn’t anyone looking at their phone?'”

In the absence of phones, Raatz attested that “instead of texting your friend, you are paying attention. We are grappling as a nation to achieve educational goals. Eliminating distractions is one approach [to aid].”

Oklahoma Republican State Senator Adam Pugh shared a similar sentiment after engaging with classrooms in a suburban high school near Oklahoma City. “In every class,” he recounted, “half of the students were engrossed in their phones throughout the session. I can’t fathom having a guest speaker during my school days and not being attentive.”

Pugh’s proposed bill would compel local public school districts to formulate policies prohibiting students from bringing phones onto campus. However, the bill wasn’t considered on the Senate floor.

A survey conducted in 2019 among college students across 37 states (and Alberta, Canada) supports the claim that digital devices lead to student distraction: On average, respondents allocated 19.4% of class time to non-academic digital activities.

Barney McCoy, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the research study’s author, underscored that students find it challenging to resist their devices while immersed in class, given their routine need to check them constantly beyond academic settings.

“When queuing at the grocery store, we instinctively reach for a smartphone,” McCoy pointed out. “If a device produces a sound in the middle of a conversation, we’ll inevitably check it.”

Studies suggest that instituting cellphone bans during classes can yield significant benefits. A Norwegian research published earlier this year scrutinized the impact of cellphone restrictions on middle school students, revealing substantial enhancements in girls’ academic performance, mental health, and a decrease in bullying for both genders. Notably, the improvements were most pronounced among lower-income female students.

Overly Broad?

“A substantial amount of bullying, particularly with the prevalence of social media, occurs due to video recordings on cellphones,” asserted Kansas Republican State Representative Adam Thomas, chair of the House Committee on Education and a father of five children.

Following a committee hearing on the bill, Thomas opted for a decentralized approach, advocating for districts rather than the state to tailor cellphone policies effectively.

Indiana State Representative Ryan Dvorak, amongst the eight House members opposing the ban in his state, echoed a similar sentiment.

“Every school in Indiana already has its own cellphone use policy,” argued Dvorak, a Democrat and father to three school-going children. “Teachers navigate this issue daily, with individual classrooms adopting varying approaches. Legislative micromanagement of class dynamics doesn’t align with my perspective.”

Roni Cohen-Sandler, a clinical psychologist and author of “Anything But My Phone, Mom!,” a parental guide on managing electronic devices, concurred that blanket statewide bans for students of all ages might not be the most pragmatic solution.

“Technology is an integral facet of our kids’ lives,” she highlighted in an interview. “Guiding them on discerning when technology is appropriate or otherwise is vital.”

Cohen-Sandler indicated that elementary schools should be devoid of phones, with their utility in middle school settings considered “extremely unlikely.” She cautioned that excessive texting with parents hampers emotional resilience development and overall impedes children’s growth.

Nevertheless, Cohen-Sandler expressed confidence in high school students’ capacity to use phones judiciously for educational purposes.

McCoy, the Nebraska educator, placed emphasis on teachers’ proactive engagement with students. “As instructors, we must embrace innovative methodologies to captivate students’ attention,” he advocated. “On countless occasions, I’ve addressed a student engrossed in their device, only for them to request a question repetition. It signifies a personal challenge for me as an educator.”

Despite these viewpoints, many parents with high school children, nostalgic for the days void of cellphones, hold the conviction that phones have no place within the educational realm.

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