New Bipartisan Bill to Study the Effects of Cell Phones in Classrooms

January 9, 2024

Should cell phones be banned in classrooms?

It’s a difficult question for school district leaders to answer. While cell phones have long been a source of distraction, assessing their impact on student learning and wellbeing has relied primarily on anecdotal evidence.

A new bipartisan bill aims to deepen our insights into the effects of cell phones in schools. The Focus on Learning Act, filed by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), calls for the U.S. Department of Education to lead a study on the effects of cell phones on mental health and academic performance. This study would include a pilot program that provides federal funds to participating schools to purchase secure containers for phone storage during school hours. 

Teodora Pavkovic, Linewize's Director of Wellbeing and Certified Digital Wellness Educator, stresses the importance of studies like the one proposed in this bill. “Research exploring the impact of cell-phone use in the classroom is much-needed, and will provide incredibly useful information not only to school districts, but families and professionals working with children as well.”

The question of removing cell phones from the classroom has been a hot topic in the wake of the pandemic. District leaders, educators and parents are trying to navigate this question, and without much research-backed evidence to refer to, approaches vary widely.

Many schools are already enacting cell phone bans

Cell phone bans in schools are gaining momentum rapidly. During the 2019-20 school year, nearly 77% of schools prohibited non-academic use of cell phones during school hours (a jump from 70.3% in 2017-18). 

Some districts have outright banned phones on school grounds, while others prohibit the use of phones during classes and allow students to use them during lunch or free periods. Most districts govern their own rules, although Florida recently enacted a statewide policy prohibiting the use of cell phones during instructional time. Other states, including Utah and Massachusetts, have considered similar policies that would limit cell phone use in districts across the state.

Many schools that have implemented cell phone bans are seeing the benefits to their students in:

  • Reducing distractions in the classroom

  • Improving mental health and anxiety

  • Helping to overcome learning loss in the wake of the pandemic

Students face a barrage of distractions in the modern classroom, and while classroom management solutions are giving teachers far more control to keep their students focused and on task, it’s still difficult to compete for attention with a personal cell phone. Since Florida’s statewide policy took effect, superintendents and teachers are reporting positive results including students being more engaged in classroom activities and fewer disciplinary actions and violent behavior issues. 

Multiple U.S. districts report that students are actually pleased with phone restrictions, with some students citing a feeling of relief at having the distraction removed on their behalf. School device policies can provide an “out” for teens to lean on, helping them to manage their own tech-driven impulses and resist the temptation to constantly check their devices.

We know that students are seeking more support in their digital wellbeing. Amid the current student mental health crisis, there’s been a rise in student wellbeing platforms used in schools to give students a channel to check in with themselves and ask for help when they need it. These platforms have been well-received not only by educators, but by students themselves.

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Considering that today’s youth are navigating tech ownership from a young age, it makes sense that they can appreciate rules in place to help them. “Research with adults has already revealed the power of distraction that our personal devices exert - the 'mere presence effect' studies have shown that even when turned off completely, we are still not able to not think about our cell phones,” says Pavkovic. “The idea that a personal mobile device may already begin to exert this kind of power on young school-aged children is worrying.”

Concerns over cell phone bans in classrooms

While many schools are seeing positive effects of removing cell phones from the classroom, not everyone agrees on this approach.

Concerns over school-wide cell phone bans generally center around safety and the ability for students to communicate with their parents in the event of an emergency. A 2021 Boston Children’s Hospital survey found the top reasons parents allowed their children to have a cell phone were to be connected and safe away from home. However, some experts point out that using a cell phone during an emergency could put a child at risk, distracting them from following the directions of adults that could save their lives.

Beyond emergency communication, it’s important to consider how cell phone bans may have a disproportionate impact for students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Students who juggle work or family responsibilities outside of school — who are more likely to be low-income and students of color — may rely on having access to their phones.

There are also educators who feel it’s more important to have nuanced discussions with children around cell phone use, rather than large-scale bans. Harsh restrictions may put a strain on teacher-student relationships and miss opportunities for constructive conversation. In coaching children to be good digital citizens, teachers can be positive mentors — discussing responsible use of tech, moderation and the relationship between screen time and mental health.

Pavkovic says, “It's important to keep in mind that it doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing approach. Given how central the digital world is to today's youth, we need to consider more than just their academic lives in making decisions about this future policy and we always — always — need to ensure they feel included in the decision-making process."

As it stands today, that decision-making process is messy and school districts have very little research-backed guidance to refer to. This is where the Focus on Learning Act’s pilot program comes in. If implemented, it would give districts some much-needed data around the impact of cell phone restrictions.

How would the Focus on Learning Act pilot program work?

The pilot study proposed in the Focus on Learning Act would provide participating schools with cell phone storage containers to lock away student phones during the school day. All participating schools would have a clear process for students to be able to contact their parents; and a communication system in place to allow teachers, administrators and staff to communicate with local emergency responders.

The cell phone storage containers would be controlled by school administrators, and student phone usage would be prohibited during the school day, including at lunch and in between classes. The study would include analysis of the data collected from participating schools — leveraging this data for national research into the impact on learning, academic achievement, educational outcomes, engagement, classroom instruction, school climate and student behavior.

Pavkovic says a study like this would be a step in the right direction to help districts make more informed decisions to support students. “In order to respond with a robust evidence-based approach we need more information on the impact this may have on their social connections, sense of meaning in relationships, their ability to challenge themselves mentally, and ultimately their academic performance as well. Once we have more information, we can become more intentional with how we allow for the use of smart-phones inside the classroom.”

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Topics: Distraction, Smartphones, Digital Citizenship, Classroom management, Mental Health

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