Should Schools Ban Phones?

CC BY 2.0. University of the Fraser Valley -- Students work with phones at their fingertips. Is this wise?

Some teachers hate them, others embrace them. But we should be cautious about anything that's known to be detrimental and addictive.

Teachers across the nation are grappling with the issue of smartphones and whether or not they should be banned in the classroom. Phones are a distraction for students, making it difficult to focus on learning. One survey found that 75 percent of K-12 teachers say students' ability to focus on educational tasks has decreased and the number of students who are negatively distracted by digital technologies in the classroom is growing.

Teachers have differing approaches. Some take a hard line, insisting that devices be kept out of the classroom. These teachers maintain it is impossible to get the most out of a class when faced with such a major distraction. There is science to back this up, as the Washington Post reports:

"True multitasking is a myth. Our brains focus on one thing by shutting out other things. We can’t pay attention to two things simultaneously, such as reading a text string while listening to a teacher’s instructions. Inevitably, something gets missed. Plus, rapid attention-switching exacts its own cognitive penalties."

Other teachers are more accepting. They figure that the technology is here to stay, so what matters is teaching kids how to use it wisely. Some employ "technology breaks" throughout the lessons, when students can catch up on social media and allay their fears of missing out. Apparently, this is a real issue. From the Washington Post again:

"There’s growing evidence suggesting that mobile devices can hijack our minds even when we’re not scrolling. A 2017 study in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found that student subjects who kept their smartphones on their desks (facedown and on silent), rather than in a backpack or stashed in another room, performed worse on tests of attention and cognitive processing."

Some teachers appreciate devices in the classroom because it creates a more equal environment; no longer are kids with special needs singled out for requiring devices; however, this perceived inclusivity can hurt others. NPR mentions Victoria Dunkley, a psychiatrist from Los Angeles who prescribes limits on screen time for patients:

"[Dunkley] has encountered 'pushback' when trying to shield her patients from using devices at schools that have integrated them into the classroom."

Then there are those who wish to "fight technology with technology," as NPR puts it. New apps are being designed to aid people in distancing themselves from devices. One such app is Flipd, which works as a lock screen on a timer to prevent one from being able to access a phone during a specified time period. In a classroom setting, teachers can invite students to "Flip Off" together and monitor who's actually doing it. Flipd designer Alanna Harvey makes a great point:

"The problem isn't the professor, it may not even be the students, but it's the devices we know that are designed to influence and manipulate our behavior in many ways."

In other words, it's important to remind ourselves that teens aren't bad students for not being able to resist their phones, nor are teachers poor instructors if they cannot compete with a buzzing, dinging iPhone. The devices themselves are to blame.

But therein lies the real issue -- that these devices are designed by people who are masters at capturing our attention. The real discussion point should revolve around whether or not these devices are improving the lives of teens, with their effect on academic performance being only one of the factors considered.

Evidence is mounting that excessive screen time is damaging to teens. It is driving up depression and suicide rates to unprecedented levels. Ever since smartphone ownership passed the 50 percent mark among teens in 2012, self-esteem, life satisfaction and happiness have plunged. A study by University of San Diego psychology professor Jean Twenge found that

"Kids who used social media daily were 13 percent more likely to report high levels of depressive symptoms than those who used social less frequently. Overall, kids in the study who spent low amounts of time engaged in in-person social interaction, but high amounts of time on social media, were the most likely to be depressed."

So, really, what is there to debate? If an particular activity is known to be harming teens emotionally and psychologically, academic performance notwithstanding, why is it condoned by any teacher? Especially knowing that a greater number of hours spent on a device is directly linked to a worsened mental state, any teacher who allows devices to be used in a classroom is, arguably, complicit.

Just as students are not allowed to smoke or drink in class, no matter how ubiquitous or pleasurable these activities may be, so should smartphones use be banned from the classroom. Discussions about how to use them wisely should certainly occur between teacher and student, just as they do on the topics of alcohol, smoking, and sexual activity, but nowhere in these discussions is there an assumption that the activity must take place at school in order for good boundaries to be taught.

I tend to be hard-nosed about devices in my own kids' lives, which I realize is a rarity, but I think this problem is only going to get worse. I do not envy the nation's teachers in having to deal with this unwelcome newcomer to their classrooms, but I hope that the technology policies that are so desperately needed are informed by the latest science, rather than trying to keep kids happy.