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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?
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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.

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