Opinion Blog

Ask a Psychologist

Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Classroom Technology Opinion

4 Strategies to Help Students Manage Cellphone Use in School

An education researcher explains how he puts theory into practice
By Tom Harrison — May 04, 2022 3 min read
How do I help students manage their cellphone use?
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

How do I help students manage their cellphone use?

I’m a researcher in the field of digital citizenship education as well as a teacher and a parent. So I can tell you about the theory and help you learn from the mistakes I’ve made putting it into practice.

When I bought my daughter her first smartphone at age 11, I did what many parents and teachers do when they are afraid: Set rules. I banned her from accessing certain content and apps and established rules about when she could use the phone.

These rules were necessary, but I knew they were also only a short-term Band-Aid—they were not educating her to live well in the digital world. They were also not very effective, as I discovered, to my horror, when she showed me how she could bypass most of them. The score at this point: digital native 1, digital immigrant 0.

So I changed strategies and went back to my research in the field of digital character and values education. I found that rule-based educational strategies might help my daughter survive in the digital world, but I needed to apply character-based strategies if I wanted her to thrive.

Here is my advice for teachers who want to help their students flourish online, based on what I know from my extensive research in schools and my own personal experience.

Establish ground rules but don’t ban cellphones. Forbidding phones on school grounds is a battle you’ll never win, but you can make it very clear when students can and can’t use them. Students can use their phones to take advantage of the opportunities they afford—to support learning. Develop these alongside students and clearly communicate them so that they are widely understood. Students need to know that the ground rules are designed for minimum behavior expectations but that you also understand how phones can be a positive force in their lives.

Set an imperfect example. If you’ve banned phones in the classroom but still use yours, this will undermine the school rules—and your students will be quick to call you out on the double standard. At the same time, you don’t need to be a perfect moral exemplar. Talk about your relationship with your phone, how you might struggle to stop “doomscrolling” or when you have sent a message on social media that you discovered accidentally hurt others. In these discussions, students will come to better understand both the risks and opportunities of living in the digital age.

Listen, then advise. You are unlikely to know the intricacies of the latest digital apps and tech your students are using. Listen to your students to learn from them about their experiences of living online. Try to get them to open up and be honest by not being too judgmental (the digital world is after all a very messy world). Offer advice on what you do know—that developing qualities such as integrity, resilience, and kindness will help not only them but also others flourish online.

Champion character. Ultimately, young people must learn how to live well in the digital world when adults are not around. We best judge character by actions when no one is watching. Explain to students why living by personal values and principles matters. Help them negotiate online moral dilemmas and provide them with language, ideas, and inspiration to help them reflect on their online interactions through a character lens.

Once I moved from a predominantly rules-based parenting style to a character-based one, I really saw my daughter’s relationship with her cellphone (as well as with my wife and me) flourish. Every day, there are ups and downs, but I can see she is now on the path to becoming digitally wise—making independent and good choices when online.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Making Technology Work Better in Schools
Join experts for a look at the steps schools are taking (or should take) to improve the use of technology in schools.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
The ABCs of ESSER: How to Make the Most of Relief Funds Before They Expire
Join a diverse group of K-12 experts to learn how to leverage federal funds before they expire and improve student learning environments.
Content provided by Johnson Controls
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Modernizing Principal Support: The Road to More Connected and Effective Leaders
When principals are better equipped to lead, support, and maintain high levels of teaching and learning, outcomes for students are improved.
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Classroom Technology 5 Ways to Use Technology to Improve Teaching and Learning
Here's an outline of the priorities schools need to address, with links to helpful resources.
2 min read
Arial illustration of a diverse group of kids sitting in a circle with their teacher and surrounded by laptops and zoom windows all around them.
Daniel Hertzberg for Education Week
Classroom Technology Letter to the Editor Personal Cellphones Are Not Instructional Tools
An educator makes the argument that personal devices have no place in instruction in this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.
iStock/Getty
Classroom Technology Spotlight Spotlight on Online Blended Learning
This Spotlight will help you clarify ways to relieve technology fatigue, obtain need-to-know info on the future of blended learning, plus more.
Classroom Technology Reports Technology in Teaching and Learning: Results of a National Survey
The EdWeek Research Center surveyed educators about the opportunities and tensions that arise as technology is used for instruction.