Student Well-Being

Can SEL Help Students Curb Their Own Cellphone Use?

By Lauraine Langreo & Arianna Prothero — April 01, 2024 7 min read
Close up of elementary or middle school white girl using a mobile phone in the classroom.
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With notifications distracting students during class time, fights spilling over from social media into the hallways, and students at lunch buried in their phones rather than in conversation with each other, phones have become a major concern for many educators.

The problem, say experts, is that adolescents are uniquely vulnerable to the siren song of cellphones. And while some schools have taken the drastic step of banning the devices altogether, that kind of policy can be hard to implement against resistance from both students and parents. Plus, most educators currently work in schools without cellphone bans.

This is where social-emotional learning might help: Educators can teach students the social-emotional skills they need to help break their addictive, unhealthy phone habits.

“There is an obvious set of umbrella skills, like impulse control, and basically all of the skills that we use to stop ourselves from doing something that maybe we shouldn’t do,” said Sophie Barnes, a researcher for the Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning Laboratory at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “But I think that there are opportunities beyond that with cellphone use. In particular, I’m thinking about relationship and communication skills.”

Why cellphones are like catnip for kids’ brains

To leverage SEL to help students manage their cellphone use, it’s helpful to first understand how the adolescent brain works and why this technology is like catnip.

Developmentally, adolescents are in a period of rapid physical and physiological change, according to experts.

“Cognitively, there’s a lot of growth and development. And in terms of identity, youth are really figuring out who they are and who they want to be,” Barnes said.

During this developmental period, “adolescents are really vulnerable to wanting to belong,” she said. So, if they’re not finding belonging in school or in other real-world situations, they’re finding belonging “though their cellphone, through the internet, and those virtual worlds.”

This need to belong is biological, said David Yeager, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He also points out that adolescents’ obsession with their social status is likely driven by evolution, not vanity. In early human history, fitting in meant survival while ostracization meant death.

Adolescents, who are at the stage where they are moving beyond the protection of their parents and are more reliant on a group of people outside their family for safety, are wired to be especially sensitive to what others think of them, he said.

“Studies typically find [that] adolescents, compared with young children and adults, shift their attention more rapidly to the social rewards in a situation,” said Yeager. “The phone doesn’t have magic powers of status and respect, but because of the applications, the object represents the doorway to the single biggest driver of motivation for this developmental stage.”

Adolescence is also a time when students are both wanting more independence from adults and when adults start to give them more freedom, said Barnes, such as how they spend their time, and with whom they spend it.

Instead of banning phones, adults—whether in school or in other settings—should give adolescents “the skills to have a better relationship with it” and use it effectively, Barnes said.

There are several social-emotional skills that educators can teach that will help students better manage their cellphone use. Those skills include self-regulation, impulse control, self-awareness, reflection, and relationship and communication skills, according to Barnes.

The skills adolescents need to regulate their cellphone use

Self-regulation includes developing better impulse control, said Barnes. And with better self-awareness skills, adolescents can think about and reflect on the role that cellphones play in their lives, and how use of the devices makes them feel, she said.

Strengthening young people’s communication and relationship skills will help them “develop the ability to connect in person” that could hopefully “decrease some of the dependence on the virtual world,” Barnes said.

In the classroom, teaching these skills could come in different forms. For instance, to help build on students’ communication and relationship skills, educators could design a classroom activity in which students have opportunities to talk to people they don’t normally interact with, Barnes said.

With guidance from the teacher, students in a classroom could also work together to create rules around cellphone use, Barnes said. That kind of collaboration could prompt conversations around the pros and cons of cellphones, how youth feel about their cellphone use, what their goals are for curbing use of the devices, and what they can do as a class to help each other reach those goals.

Another important skill for students to develop related to their cellphone use is the ability to reframe or relabel what they might at first see as a negative situation or interaction on social media into a more positive one. But to do that, it’s important to understand how people react to various social stressors, said Yeager.

People respond differently to something they see as a challenge versus a threat. Challenge stress is motivating and can be positive, he said. Threat stress in a social situation, on the other hand, stirs up a host of unpleasant physiological responses, such as increases in heartrate and cortisol levels. That can make it very difficult to concentrate on learning.

“When you are under that threat, it dominates your [thinking], it’s hard to come back to homeostasis,” said Yeager. For example, if a student sees something on social media they perceive as a threat to their social standing right before starting math class, they’re going to spend at least the first 10 minutes of class battling those physiological responses and focusing on their phone, not on learning math, said Yeager.

“But if you give students the skill of reappraising difficulties as a challenge instead of a threat, recovery time is a lot faster,” he said. “So, one idea is having this skill of thinking about a social difficulty as an opportunity for growth or a challenge that you’re going to overcome.”

Educators’ own social-emotional skills related to cellphone use are also a part of the equation.

Teachers should acknowledge it’s also hard for them to limit their cellphone use sometimes, too. Barnes said they should ask themselves: What’s difficult for us about cellphone use, and what do we do to curb addictive, unhealthy behaviors? They should share those reflections with their students.

More empathy from educators can go a long way, said Yeager. It’s not helpful for educators to see teens’ constant cellphone use simply as a sign of defiance or a lack of impulse control.

“The power struggle between adults and teenagers in the hallways over phones could be making the problem worse,” he said. “I think that if adults learn to see teenagers’ phone use in a more compassionate way, that our entire economy has squeezed this huge source of information about their social well-being into this tiny device, it’s totally reasonable for them to pay attention to that device.”

It’s about a lot more than self-control

But social-emotional learning alone is probably not enough to curb unhealthy cellphone use, said Yeager. It was adults, after all, who created cellphones and social media, he pointed out.

Students’ social-emotional skills need an assist from adults and an approach to SEL that’s more expansive than teaching explicit skills.

People who have good self-control don’t simply have limitless willpower, said Yeager. What they are good at is modifying their environments, such as leaving their cellphone in their locker instead of their desk, so they don’t have to rely on willpower.

Policies that require students to put their phones in a pouch at the beginning of classes or require students to keep them in their lockers are examples of policies created by adults that can help students, Yeager said. Those types of policies could be a step in the right direction, especially if schools work to get students’ buy-in ahead of time. Some students have said they are less stressed and learn better when they are not constantly checking their phones.

Instead of telling adolescents that they need more self-control, Yeager suggested a better strategy might be for adults to facilitate activities that create alternative routes for kids to build that all-important social status—or said another way: things kids can be good at.

Schools can provide some of these opportunities through clubs, sports, and leadership programs, said Yeager. And he thinks it’s an approach that will be more universally beneficial for students.

“The most self-disciplined kids, they are already getting straight A’s,” said Yeager. “They’re not who I’m worried about. I’m worried about the kid who is getting C’s and D’s. They need status and respect more than anybody and they’re going to go to their phones even more because they need an alternative way to feel good about themselves.”

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