Cell Phones in School: The Ongoing Debate
Cell phones in school pros and cons erupt a firestorm of opinions from parents, teachers, policymakers, and students themselves. Before exploring opposing viewpoints, what’s the core issue?
According to Pew Research, 95 percent of US teens say they have access to a smartphone. Furthermore, nearly half say they use the Internet “almost constantly.” This level of saturation raises concerns over whether — or to what level — cell phones distract students inside K-12 classrooms.
During the 2017-18 school year, 63 percent of public schools prohibited cell phones for non-academic purposes, federal data shows. That’s significantly down from nearly 90 percent during the 2009-10 school year. Many state school boards allow districts to define their own cell phone policies. In stark contrast to that decentralized approach, French Parliament banned campus cell phone use among children under 15.
Stakeholders in education systems across the US continue to debate the merits of cell phone use in schools. Are smartphones fueling a cyberbullying epidemic and national culture of distraction? Or, do they make schools safer while preparing young scholars for an inevitable high-tech future?
Let’s take a deeper look at cell phones in school pros and cons, starting with the pros.
Cell Phones in School Pros
First, cell phones on campus can support school safety. Proponents often note that during the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, students were on their phones. Many called 911 or their parents, while others reported the situation on social media. The majority of districts that previously banned phones now allow them, NPR reports, given parents’ desire to stay connected in case of emergency.
Secondly, permitting cell phone use in classrooms can help teachers better engage students. “Learning something new” is among teens’ top uses for their cell phones, Pew Research reports. Many teachers now incorporate smartphones into their lessons to harness this innate interest. Popular uses include developing podcasts and scavenger hunts for the class, incorporating educational and organizational apps, including video and photo assignments, and much more.
Some teachers even allow students to listen to music through headphones while completing individual assignments. “The noise level in the classroom goes down, and the work amount goes up when you let them listen to their music,” one veteran teacher told the National Education Association.
Lastly, permitting cell phones in school can take pressure off schools and families to invest in more expensive digital tools, like computers and camera equipment.
Cell Phones in School Cons
The most commonly reported disadvantage of cell phones in school: increased distraction and reduced academic performance. Anecdotally, teachers, administrators, and students report varying ways smartphones cause distractions. Some say phone alerts interrupt concentration during lessons and tests. Others note that regular device-driven student-teacher disputes consume valuable class time. Additionally, in 2015, the London School of Economics released a striking statistical finding: UK students earned higher test scores in schools with cell phone bans than their phone-toting peers.
Another con of cell phones in school: access to social media and cyberbullying. Some assert that allowing cell phones in schools gives youth more time to engage with social media. In addition to distracting from their studies, this fuels concerns of cyberbullying and explicit content sharing. In 2018, about 60 percent of US teens said they had been bullied or harassed online. Additionally, a quarter of teens said they received explicit images without their consent. Some districts that restrict cell phones specifically aim to reduce both offenses.
Lastly, cell phones can hinder emergency response. One school security consultant argues that cell phones can distract students from following urgent safety instructions, alert assailants of hiding places, and interfere with first responder communication.
What Both Sides Think
Now, where do leading political parties sit within the great cell phone debate? Although school cell phone policies are often addressed at the local level, some state representatives have taken action in recent years. However, their stances don’t fall cleanly along party lines.
In 2015, New York’s democratic Mayor Bill DeBlasio lifted the state’s ban on students bringing cell phones into public schools. The new rules enable schools “to devise their own cellphone policy, or use a default policy of allowing students to bring their phones to school as long as they remain out of sight,” Reuters reports.
In contrast, California’s democratic governor Gavin Newsom signed a 2019 bill allowing school boards to limit or eliminate cell phone use. That same year, San Mateo High School became the largest school in the country to lock student phones during school hours.
Four Republican-led states — Arizona, Maine, Maryland, and Utah — also recently attempted to restrict cell phones in schools. In Utah, one conservative state representative concerned with pornography access urged the state school board to restrict cell phones in schools. The school board ultimately ordered all districts and charters to establish clear policies and training.