Student Well-Being

Teachers Want Parents to Step Up to Curb Cellphone Misuse. Are They Ready?

By Arianna Prothero — May 10, 2024 5 min read
Elementary students standing in line against a brick wall using cellphones and not interacting.
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A common criticism from educators is that parents should do more to teach their children healthy technology habits.

“Why are schools being asked to do the job of the parents?” said one educator in a recent survey from the EdWeek Research center.

“We simply don’t have time for this,” said another. “Too many other demands placed upon educators which fall under the role of parents. There isn’t enough time in the day to get everything done.”

“Parents are supplying their children with these tools at very young ages and giving them little to no direction/supervision,” said a third.

The problem is many parents may feel out of their depth in tackling this challenge, and experts in digital education and wellness say that schools have an important role to play in teaching these skills.

In response, more than 200 local PTAs and schools have been offering workshops to parents this spring to give them guidance on how to responsibly shepherd their children through the digital world.

It’s part of a nationwide initiative by the National PTA to help support parents and schools, said Yvonne Johnson, the organization’s president.

“Parenting in the digital age is very challenging,” she said, especially as an increasing amount of kids’ schoolwork and social lives are on screens.

“We don’t want them to spend nine hours of their day on a device,” Johnson said. “But sometimes, especially as they get older, it can be impossible for a parent to say, ‘you can’t do your homework online’ when most of it is online. This is why family-school partnerships are so important. We have to have more conversations.”

The initiative—called Ready, Tech, Go!—offers guidance and resources on a range of issues, from teaching children how to stay safe online, to developing healthy tech habits, to determining when children are ready for their own devices.

If we can get more and more parents on board with waiting [to purchase cellphones for their kids], then there will be less of that social pressure.

Students’ cellphone use has become a major headache for educators. They distract students in class and connect kids 24/7 to social media—itself a source of social anxiety, bullying, and fights that can spill over into school hallways.

Students can get hundreds of notifications on their phones every day, even while at school, research has found. And those pings may be coming from parents as often as from peers.

In EdWeek Research Center surveys, educators frequently describe cellphones as addictive and worry about the long-term damage they are doing to children’s education and development.

Even so, many teens and experts in adolescent development say that social media can also be a source of good for students, as a place to find community, stay connected with friends and family, and develop hobbies and interests.

Taking pressure off parents to buy their kids cellphones

In Blue Haze elementary school in Fort Worth, Texas, which serves grades K-4, principal Emily Estes estimates that as much as 30 percent of her students have their own phones, although not all of them bring them to school. Even a few of her kindergarten students have their own devices.

Blue Haze elementary recently hosted one of the PTA digital workshops for parents, which Estes said drew a crowd that usually only student performances would, not parental educational programing. Around 100 families attended, she said, showing a clear hunger for more information on the issue.

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Close up of elementary or middle school white girl using a mobile phone in the classroom.
E+

“A lot of our kids don’t have devices yet, but parents are feeling the pressure because their kids want them,” Estes said. “If we can get more and more parents on board with waiting, then there will be less of that social pressure.”

Even though in her elementary school there aren’t enough cellphones to be a huge distraction or source of social strife, Estes does worry about how personal devices might affect her students’ development.

Parents also struggle with the decision to give their kids cellphones because the devices allow them to keep close tabs on their children throughout the day, said Estes. She is trying to give parents that same sense of security without cellphones by keeping open several other lines of communication.

Parents or guardians can message teachers throughout the day on the school’s messaging app. Este’s also gives out her own cellphone number to parents who are anxious about their child’s whereabouts. She did this recently on a field trip where students were asked not to bring their phones.

“I am outside every morning, every parent sees me when they drop off their kid. They see me at afternoon dismissal. I think being present is a huge part of trust and helps them feel more safe about where their kids are,” Estes said. “It starts with communication, we work really hard with communicating with parents about everything, because they trust that we will communicate with them good or bad, they [have] that trust in us.”

The debate over who is responsible for teaching proper tech use

In addition to the National PTA workshop, Estes’s school also teaches students digital citizenship, she said. Her district uses Common Sense Media’s K-12 curriculum, which teaches students about how to: protect their privacy online, be aware of their digital footprints, and achieve a balance of technology use.

But educators are divided on whether it is their job to teach these skills.

See also

Bored teen girl using cell phone in a class at school.
E+ / Getty

In a recent nationally representative survey of teachers, principals, and district leaders conducted by the EdWeek Research Center, one in three said they either completely or partly disagree with the statement that “educators should be responsible for helping students learn to use social media in ways that support their mental health and well-being.”

While Estes said she understands her fellow educators who feel that teaching kids how to manage their cellphone and social media use should be the job of families, she said schools must play a role.

“What about those kids whose parents won’t or can’t teach them these things? I agree it would be a lot more effective probably if it was the parent’s responsibility, but I think it’s too important to ignore and just say, ‘oh, that’s the parent’s job, we’re not going to help,’” she said. “You could say the same thing about feeding them lunch. It’s the parent’s job to make sure their kid has lunch every day. But, if we ignore the kids who can’t afford it, or forget their lunch and don’t feed them, then that’s a pretty big problem. I think the partnership with parents is key.”

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