I’ll get right to the point: I don’t think kids should be allowed to use their cell phones during the school day. In fact, I’m strongly against it and to be honest I’m kind of shocked that it’s even a thing.
Last year I was at a training for social workers on teens and technology. The speaker was addressing the issue of kids and their addiction to social media.
And while he was talking, I looked out over the room of adults – several hundred fully grown professionals – and I would estimate that 70% of the people in the room were, during this presentation, scrolling through their phones, paying only partial attention to our speaker.
The irony was too much. There we were discussing kids’ addiction to technology, while we are so clearly addicted ourselves.
Obviously this is a wider societal issue.
Which brings me to this — cell phones have no place in school with our kids.
I’ve come to this opinion based on my observations working as a school counselor at three different high schools, all of which had different policies regarding kids and phone use during the school day.
Let me start by stating the obvious: I understand, in this era of school shootings, why parents and kids want to be able to reach each other, should a worst case scenario present itself.
I get this.
So I think it’s reasonable to allow kids to bring their cell phones to school — as long as they’re kept secured in a backpack until the end of the school day.
I don’t have an issue with that. So that’s not what I’m talking about here.
What I feel very strongly against is the policy of allowing kids to actively use their cell phones throughout the school day – in the halls, in the cafeteria, or during class time.
And here’s why.
Our kids need a break.
Let’s put aside for a minute the impact on education (it’s harder, after all, to focus on World History while you’re also watching TikTok).
To me that’s not even the most significant issue, although it’s a big one. To me the greater issue is the lack of mental space our kids have when they’re online.
Kids need a break mentally and emotionally from the 24/7 access to the drama inherent in living a life online. And without this being imposed on them (i.e. the schools banning phones) our kids never get this break, ever.
If kids are allowed to use their phones throughout the school day, then they absolutely will use them.
They don’t want to “miss” anything, and if they know their friends might be online then they will want to be there too. (If it was clear that nobody was online during school hours, the pull towards it would lessen tremendously)!
Kids are not able to police themselves effectively. The temptation to pick up the phone is simply too great for most of us, adults and kids alike.
So what does this mean?
It means that when we don’t have policies that protect our kids from themselves, they will go through their entire day, and often well into the night, tethered to external influences over which they have little control.
It means they’re at the constant mercy of a rude comment on social media.
It means that if someone is judging them, even from a distance, they’ll receive that judgment right before a big exam. Or walking into a class that they really need to focus in.
There is just no protected time. You’re never safe.
It means that if they themselves want to be in the spotlight, it’ll be very hard to avoid the temptation to “perform” (for a real or imagined audience) when what they really need to be doing is dialing in at school.
We already have an entire generation of kids who are growing up needing to be “on” at literally all times. There is no natural break from this anymore. There is no protected space.
We could be giving them a protected space at school. But too often we don’t.
And our kids suffer from this.
But it’s impossible to control the phones!
Is it really?
I can say definitively that it is not impossible to do so. Challenging? Maybe. But impossible? No.
I spent a few years working at a high school in a city with an average population of kids. These weren’t magic unicorn kids. They were regular standard-issue kids. Kids who had social media accounts, and who liked to be online like any other kids.
And yet in two years working at this high school, I can’t remember a single instance of seeing a kid using a cell phone in class. I can’t even recall seeing a cell phone being used in the halls during school hours.
It simply wasn’t done, because students didn’t want their phones confiscated by an administrator and kept at the front office. (And this is exactly what would’ve happened if they were caught with the phone, and they all knew it).
A key to the success at this high school was the fact that it was across the board that the staff understood – and enforced – the no cell phones rule. It does very little good to have a math teacher who doesn’t allow a phone in class if you have an English teacher who does.
Consistency at school – just like consistency at home – is key here. The kids need to know that there’s a firm boundary that is not to be crossed. If there is even a small crack in the armor, kids can and will exploit it.
So what does it look like when phones are allowed in schools?
It looks like kids walking down the halls with their heads buried in the phone. Which looks just like what we see in line at the store, and on the streets, and at stoplights.
It looks like a 16-year-old who can’t get through an afternoon without texting her mom to seek reassurance if things aren’t going well. Which means this kid is not having any practice at all in developing the skills needed to work through adversity on her own.
It looks like parents texting their kids throughout the school day, breaking the very concentration that they want their child to develop. Kids actually complain about this! They’ll be in the middle of class and their phone won’t stop buzzing because of a parent anxious that he or she is not getting an immediate response.
It looks like kids with earbuds and headphones and on under their hoodies, walking from class to class, avoiding eye contact in the halls. I know school is socially challenging for many kids. But how can we expect kids to develop coping skills when they’re not expected to cope, even in small doses? When the answer is to simply tune out and hide? On top of that, wearing the headphones precludes the very interpersonal engagement that could actually help a disconnected child begin to connect.
It looks like kids who cannot be left to their own mental devices for two minutes without needing a technology fix. Just like with adults. Except I would argue it’s even more corrosive, because these are kids who are going through an intense period of growth, where time for real introspection and space for processing their experiences has a heightened importance.
It looks like kids missing out on critical pieces of information in class, because they’re trying to multi-task. We all know how hard it is to focus when you’re also scrolling through your phone. Let’s not pretend that our kids are able to do this any better than we can.
It looks like kids who aren’t getting the daily practice of interacting with other kids and adults, face to face, without the buffer of a phone. So many kids struggle with interpersonal relationships, and school is one of the primary places where they’re able to practice – face to face – dealing with others. If the phone is always a third wheel they have less and less of a chance to work on these “soft skills” that they desperately need.
Our kids are more anxious than I’ve ever seen them.
My years as a school social worker connected me with teenager after teenager who was simply ill-equipped to deal with their anxieties.
And I would be hard-pressed to believe that adding an additional heaping dose of cell phone use into school days – at a time that should be protected – is doing any good here.
Parents and kids now have constant access to each other, and in my opinion this is leading to an unhealthy co-dependency that’s contrary to the natural developmental need for individuation during the teenage years.
I have seen both scenarios – schools that do allow phones and schools that don’t – and for me it’s not even a close contest.
We should be giving our kids a break from the phones. Just because they don’t want one doesn’t mean they don’t really, really need one.