Student Well-Being

Cellphone Headaches in Middle Schools: Why Policies Aren’t Enough

By Elizabeth Heubeck — May 14, 2024 6 min read
A student holds a cell phone during class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
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Middle school has always been a difficult time for kids. But when you tack on their near-constant use of cellphones, this stage of development can become very problematic.

Research shows that early adolescents are particularly susceptible to the seductive risks tied to cellphone use: Think cyberbullying, catfishing (creating a fake identity online to mislead someone), and straight-up addiction. Putting in place strong cellphone-usage policies at school can help curb these associated problems.

Although the majority of K-12 schools (77 percent at last count) have policies that prohibit nonacademic use of cellphones during school hours, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, some teachers, including middle school educators, embrace the use of cellphones for in-class assignments—from making podcasts to taking nature photos for digital journals in science class.

But cellphone policies should be just one piece of a much broader and thoughtful digital educational strategy, experts emphasize.

“Most schools have done very little to address the digital citizenship piece of the technology end, and it’s often very random and hodgepodge—not just from district to district but from building to building,” said Liz Kolb, a clinical professor of learning technologies and teacher education at the University of Michigan. “There’s nobody in the school who’s actually in charge of this curriculum, which makes it difficult to figure out who’s going to teach it.”

It’s a problem worth remedying, say experts, who explain why middle school students are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of social media and how schools can help.

‘In middle school, peers are more important than parents’

During adolescence, students naturally begin to pull apart from their parents and seek approval from their peers. Some psychologists describe it as a process whereby adolescents engage in behaviors and attitudes that they feel help them establish independence from their parents but can oftentimes be very impulsive.

Cindy Bourget, a school counselor who works at Elk Mound Middle School in Wisconsin, sees it all the time. “In middle school, peers are more important than parents,” she said.

Of course, that’s nothing new. What is relatively new is the ubiquity of social media, which allows adolescents to connect with peers—and other sources of information, not always reliable or well-meaning—in a near continuous manner.

Research shows that middle school students are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of social media on their well-being. In a sweeping 2022 study that examined survey results from more than 17,400 teenagers and young adults on how social media use affected their life satisfaction, respondents indicated that social media use during puberty has a particularly negative effect.

Bourget said she hears a lot of feedback related to social media from middle school students, particularly girls, indicating that they’re having trouble navigating the online world. “The conversation surrounding healthy relationships has shifted so dramatically, from ‘how do you engage in a conversation with a boy’ to ‘how do you know if this person is trying to traffic you?’” she said.

Social media has also exacerbated the threat of more common adolescent challenges, like schoolyard bullying. “Before social media, when you went home from school, you could shut it off, talk to adults in the room. Social media has made it so there is very little room for the other voices to penetrate,” Bourget said. The “other voices” Bourget references are those belonging to teachers, parents, and other trusted adults—those who insert reason into what, for many adolescents, has become an otherwise 24-hour reel of input via social media dominated by content driven by peers, advertisers, and even predators.

But unhealthy online communication doesn’t just come from predatory strangers or bullying peers. When middle school kids are allowed to use cellphones at school, the devices provide parents unfettered online access to their adolescent children during the school day, which experts say can be unhealthy, too.

“School is the place where kids get to be independent for the first time,” said Michael Rich, a pediatrician and the director of the Digital Wellness Lab, a nonprofit research center at Boston Children’s Hospital. “They’re building their own society. If you have mom or dad in your head all day long, [adolescents] never get to learn or practice taking care of themselves or being themselves in that environment.”

‘It becomes too much of a distraction’

Rich’s position on cellphones in middle schools is clear: “I think phones should not be in schools,” he said, intentionally avoiding the word “ban.”

“I think we should approach this not as a ban, but as an opportunity,” said Rich. A ban, he explains, can feel threatening to parents—many of whom have expressed the strong desire to be able to contact their child during the school day via cellphone as their (parental) right and a safety issue.

“The minute you talk about this as a ban, parents resist,” said Rich. Instead, he suggests reinforcing to parents the notion of a cellphone-free middle school as one that allows adolescents to gain independence, as they learn how to take care of themselves and behave in a way that reflects the people they are—or at least those they aspire to be. “I think smartphones interrupt that in really profound ways,” Rich said.

Bourget agrees with Rich that middle school students should not have access to cellphones during the school day. “Their brains are not developed to handle it,” she said. “It becomes too much of a distraction.”

‘They don’t know that all these [online] things ... are designed to be addictive’

Middle school students may not have the impulse control to avoid using their cellphones at school, but they can be taught to understand how social media feeds their brain’s desire to engage in the online world, Kolb said. “They don’t know that all these [online] things they’re using are designed to be addictive.”

She suggests that conversations with students focus less on how much time they spend on their phones and more on how this time on social media makes them feel. “This allows students to take ownership, to recognize that it’s OK that I’m using my device but that I need to be smart about it so that my body and brain can be recharged.”

Bourget believes in downplaying the what of “policing” cellphone use and focusing instead on the why. “They’re at an age when boundaries are something they’re going to push against,” she said. At her school, Bourget tries to focus conversations about social media in ways that resonate with her audience. For example, she’s quick to point out to 7th grade boys—many of whom are enamored with professional athletes—how the misuse of social media can dash the hopes of such stardom. It’s a lesson they’re more likely to remember than simply that “cellphones shouldn’t be used in school,” she said.

Ideally, the University of Michigan’s Kolb said, such conversations are couched within a comprehensive K-12 curriculum that addresses a range of health issues. “It’s not a one-time conversation,” she said.

That may seem like a big commitment for schools. But, Kolb explains, the negative effects of social media can quickly become bigger problems when there’s no existing education or curriculum to fall back on, leaving teachers to manage problems episodically.

“Drama, friendship issues, cheating, bullying and the feelings of depression, stress, or anxiety that comes from it,” she said, “it all trickles into school, and then schools have to address the symptoms.”

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