Classroom Technology Opinion

Cellphones in Schools: Addiction, Distraction, or Teaching Tool?

A short history of the long debate over cellphone use in the classroom
By Mary Hendrie — June 21, 2024 5 min read
People staring into their phones. Conceptual Illustration.
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“Cellphones are here to stay. More and more work is being done on these communication devices, as they morph into BlackBerries, hand-held calculators, phone banks, digital cameras, radios, and even televisions.”

So warned education professor Bruce S. Cooper and former superintendent John W. Lee as they weighed the place of cellphones in schools—back in 2006.

That was the year that an unevenly enforced 1988 ban on mobile devices in New York City schools sprang back into the public consciousness with a new crackdown. That policy was later dropped in 2015, but it seems everything old is new again. The current New York governor, Kathy Hochul, is now publicly considering a similar statewide ban, as are California Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers in more than half a dozen other states. Several states, including Floridia, Indiana, and Ohio, already passed statewide prohibitions on school cellphone use in the past several years.

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Cellphone technology has certainly evolved as predicted over the last few decades (well, mostly; R.I.P. to the now discontinued BlackBerry), but what about the debate over their use in schools?

The popularity of phone bans has yo-yoed in the years since, from a high of 91 percent of public schools prohibiting nonacademic use of cellphones in the 2009-10 school year (the first year the National Center for Education Statistics began tracking such data). That number dipped as low as 66 percent in 2015-16 but has since rebounded to 76 percent in 2021-22, the latest year data are available.

Back in 2006, one fault line was already emerging between educators concerned about cellphone misuse in class and parents concerned about not being able to communicate with their children.

“Given the potential for abuse, a ban sounds logical,” wrote Cooper and Lee in their 2006 essay. “Yet, in today’s society, cellphones also serve as modern-day umbilical cords, able to link children with their increasingly busy (and worried) parents and guardians.”

If that sounds familiar, it might be because you read reporting just last month from EdWeek Staff Writer Elizabeth Heubeck documenting “When Schools Want to Ban Cellphones—But Parents Stand in the Way.”

Of course, the debate over cellphones in school has never been as clear-cut as educators vs. parents. Dig deeper into Edweek’s Opinion advice and you’ll find countless educators taking a pro-cellphone line—at least when used responsibly.

Middle school administrator Matt Levinson saw a fork in the road ahead of teachers in a 2009 Opinion essay: “They can continue to fight a losing battle and draw harsh lines in the sand, confiscating cellphones or banning their use during school hours. Or, they can seize the teachable moment, and shift their approaches to embrace technology and engage students with these devices.”

The following year, middle school teacher Paul Barnwell reached a similar conclusion, advising readers that not only can cellphones be put to productive use in the classroom, but that failing to do so may actually be doing students a disservice. How else, he asked, can schools prepare students for the “real world”? (And if that sounds familiar, it might be because you’ve been reading modern arguments over the place of AI in schools.)

But for teachers in schools without a clear cellphone policy, finding those academic applications for smartphones amid the TikTok distractions is no easy task. You could try five tips from high school teacher Curtis White on “Harnessing the Power of the Cellphone in Class.” Or perhaps check out education consultant Matthew Lynch’s three strict rules for classroom cellphone use.

More recently, a slew of educators shared their own strategies for curbing cellphone misuse, in response to Opinion blogger Larry Ferlazzo’s call for teacher contributions:

In the past few years, several education researchers have also shared best practices on cellphone use in psychologist Angela Duckworth’s Ask a Psychologist opinion blog. Drawing on his bumpy experiences trying to set boundaries on his own 11-year-old daughter’s smartphone use, education researcher Tom Harrison offered “4 Strategies to Help Students Manage Cellphone Use in School.”

In another post, Duckworth reminded readers of some basic self-control tricks to help kids resist the siren song of screen time.

Psychology professor Jean M. Twenge, who dug through data from 11,000 teens to conclude that “not all screen time is created equal,” laid down some do’s and don’ts for cellphone access in the blog.

But not everyone is optimistic on finding a middle ground between endless distraction and productive learning tool. In a widely read 2016 Opinion essay, teacher Steve Gardiner had another word for his students’ relationships to their phones: addiction.

“Addiction is a strong word, but it accurately describes the dysfunctional behavior exhibited by teenagers in my high school English classroom when I ask them to put away their cellphones,” he wrote. Gardiner wasn’t calling for a blanket ban on phones—indeed, he identified some legitimate academic uses of the technology—but rather sounding the alarm on the “obsessive and dependent behavior” undergirding student cellphone misuse.

“We have incentives to promote attendance and graduation,” he concluded, “but many teenagers need help, because their bodies are in the classroom, but their minds are inside their cellphones.”

For some teachers, that cellphone dependency has gotten bad enough to sour them on the profession entirely. That’s the story of high school biology teacher Mitchell Rutherford, who decided to quit teaching in part because of the exhaustion he felt from competing with cellphones for students’ attention.

“I wasn’t emotionally available for myself or my wife,” he told Education Week earlier this month, “because I was pouring my heart into my students that I saw struggling with socializing, anxiety, and focus, which in my opinion is largely caused and certainly exacerbated by intentionally designed addictive cellphone apps.”

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