The rate of cell phone ownership among twelve-to-seventeen-year-olds in the United States has increased rapidly in the twenty-first century. Nearly 90 percent of US teenagers own a cell phone. These phones are increasingly advanced. Smartphones provide phone, text message, and camera capabilities and give users potentially unrestricted online access.
The prevalence of cell phone ownership among young people creates both problems and opportunities for schools. Many students use cell phones for educational purposes and class-related tasks. They may use them to take notes, keep track of schedules, and check grades. Some educators use cell technology to help students access online study tools or collaborate on projects. Allowing cell phones in schools has remained a subject of intense debate, however. Studies have associated their use with negative academic, social-emotional, and mental health outcomes.
Academic, Social, and Psychological Effects
Much of the debate about cell phones in schools centers on their impact on student learning environments and academic performance. Many students struggle to resist the draw of text messages, social media notifications, videos, and games on their devices. According to Pew, 45 percent of teenagers indicated that they used the internet “almost constantly” in 2018.
When students bring their phones into the classroom, they become sources of distraction and disruption, which inhibit concentration, focus, and memory. Some studies have suggested that allowing cell phone use in schools leads to poorer learning outcomes, both for the phone user and others in the class.
Cell phones in schools are also associated with negative social and psychological effects. Child development experts caution that excessive use of a smartphone or other mobile device can prevent students from engaging in social interactions and developing interpersonal skills.
Data also suggests that having smartphones at school creates more opportunities for students to engage in inappropriate uses of the technology, such as bullying, harassment, or sexting. The New York City public schools district, for instance, experienced a sharp rise in cyberbullying incidents after lifting a ban on cell phones.
Compulsive or excessive use of cell phones has also been tied to poor mental health outcomes for teenagers. Related problems include higher rates of social isolation, anxiety, depression, and suicide. A study of more than 500,000 American students conducted between 2010 and 2015 showed that teenagers who used electronic devices for three or more hours per day were 34 percent more likely to experience suicidal thoughts than teenagers who used such devices less often. However, many psychologists claim that such studies do not support a clear link between phone use and mental and emotional problems.
In 2016, 92 percent of students in grades 6–12 who were surveyed felt it was important for them to use their cell phones in school for learning purposes. Meanwhile, 71 percent of parents agreed that their children should have mobile devices in school. Pressure from parents who want to be able to contact their children during the school day has contributed to a trend toward reversing cell phone bans in schools. Many parents use cell phones to arrange rides, coordinate after-school activities, or ensure child safety in case of emergency.
Some teachers support the idea of allowing cell phones in schools. They view total bans as both ineffective and unrealistic. Some supporters argue for "bring your own device" (BYOD) policies as cost-saving measures that allow schools to avoid the expense of providing laptops or tablets for every student. Some teachers accept that smartphones are central to student life. They argue that, rather than banning phone use in schools, educators should take the opportunity to teach students the skills and knowledge they need to become good digital citizens.
Digital citizenship refers to how people use technology to participate in society in safe, positive, and productive ways. Students may use smartphones in class to conduct online research, share documents, record presentations, hold conferences, or connect with subject-matter experts.
Cell phones can also add an important measure of safety to student life. Students can use phones to capture footage, document events, and communicate in a crisis. In 2015, for example, students at a South Carolina high school recorded an incident of a school security officer using excessive force against a student. In February 2018, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, used their cell phones during a deadly school shooting. They communicated with each other, friends, and parents during the crisis. Some felt that this activity helped students and their families feel safer and more secure. However, other people felt that the device usage during this time created more potential problems. Phone use in such circumstances can distract students from security announcements or jam communication channels used by first responders.
School boards, administrators, and educators continue to respond to the cell phone question in various ways. Some districts institute bans, ranging from restricting phone use in class to outlawing any student phones on school property. Other districts have repealed bans and allowed students to carry phones during school hours and have various levels of phone usage.
Attitudes toward these policies vary considerably across communities and states. In general, most Americans seem in favor of flexible policies as determined by individual school districts and educators. Some new approaches to the debate include lockable phone pouches called Yondr that allow students to have their phones at school but have limited access to them, and Flipd, an app that allows teachers to monitor phone use by students.