Five Reasons To Get Serious about Kicking Smartphones Out of School

If we reflect on phone use in society and make learning the top priority, we can realize the benefits of smartphone constraint

Students in France went back to school this fall sans smartphones, thanks to a nationwide detox law passed in June. Children under age 15 cannot use mobile phones in classes, during breaks, on playgrounds, in cafeterias, or anywhere on the premises of French schools. The ban aims to help young people concentrate, improve learning outcomes, and encourage physical activity. The French education minister describes the legislation as giving students a “right to disconnect” from digital pressures during the school day and helping everyone to “reflect on our phone use in society, including adults.”

In the U.S., there seems to be an opposite trend, toward relaxing student phone bans. The number of public schools banning phones dropped from 90 percent in 2010 to 66 percent in 2016. A prominent example is New York City’s 2015 reversal of a decade-long ban on smartphones, which affected around a million students. The prohibition was lifted due to pressure from parents who wanted to be able to reach kids during the day — not from student demanding to use their devices at school. A group of parents sued the city for violating students’ supposed “right to possess cellphones” and parents’ “right to oversee their children’s safety.” In rescinding the ban, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city law hindered “modern parenting.”

What about modern learning, though?

Discussions about bans tend to focus on the losses that people perceive: losing access to a device, to unrestrained mediated communication, to the illusion of safety. Parents are understandably anxious about children traveling to and from school alone — and about the possibility of school shootings or other emergencies. Mobile phones offer vague reassurance. Yet parents are also increasingly concerned about the amount of time their kids spend glued to screens, about their kids being cyber-bullied, and whether their kids are learning as much as they should.

It’s time to redirect this conversation. Instead of putting devices and their absence on center stage, let’s look squarely at the benefits that students enjoy when distraction machines get expelled. We know more now than we did a few years ago about the influence of mobile phones on young people, learning processes, and social life. Instead, we could think seriously about how to create “safe spaces for the mind,” where students can focus on class work, learn more, reduce stressors that inhibit education, and develop social skills for success in school, work and life.

  1. Staying Focused. Many educators would prefer to keep phones out of classrooms but make the best of the situation by teaching students how to use devices effectively. Still, they struggle to enforce rules that many students ignore. (If this doesn’t jibe with your experience, you drew the lucky straw; many student populations are less attentive and less obedient.) Rare is the teacher who can compete with the seductive powers of smartphones and social media. In surveys, a third of U.S. teens admit to losing focus in class due to checking their cellphones. That percentage is higher if you include students either unaware they’re not paying attention or distracted by peers checking their phones. Tyranny by the minority is an issue: Even when most students are concentrating, they get distracted by others fiddling with phones. It is well documented that our ability to multitask — such as listening to a discussion while reading on a screen — is much worse than we think.
  2. Learning More. Schools that banish mobile phones have seen improvements in student performance. In one study, students without phones took more detailed notes, recalled information better, and earned test grades a full letter higher than students with phones. Mobile devices have such a negative impact on productivity through distraction, researchers say, that removing smartphones can yield the equivalent of adding five days to the school year. Phone bans can reduce learning inequalities, too. The performance of low-achieving and low-income students gained almost twice as much as average students under phone expulsions, with no discernible effect on high achievers.
  3. Reducing Stress. Contrary to generational stereotypes, young people report around 20% higher levels of tech-related stress than older people. Two contributing factors to this stress are “fear of missing out” (FOMO) and over-dependence on phones (nomophobia). Prescribing a few hours per day in which to proscribe phones can alleviate this anxiety. It’s key for device abstention to be normalized by the fact that their peers are doing it every day, too. Some young people have begun to recognize the joy of missing out (JOMO). Research shows that when pre-teen girls communicate digitally, they feel stressed, judged, and rejected. When they converse face-to-face, they feel more valued, safer, and more successful.
  4. Curbing Bullies: Heavy cellphone use is correlated with bullying and being bullied. When cellphones returned to New York City schools, cyberbullying increased. Students had more time in the day to circulate mean comments. Meanwhile, phone bans are correlated with a decrease in online and in-person bullying during school hours. The word “cyberbullying” might sound abstract; it usually involves body-shaming and harassment over race, gender, and sexual orientation. Without such abuse, kids are less stressed, more focused, and can perform better in school. (4)
  5. Social Skills. Some educators support phone bans in hopes that students will learn to interact with one another during breaks and lunch. One concern is empathy: the ability to identify with or vicariously share someone else’s thoughts and feelings. Levels of empathy among young people are around 40% lower than two decades ago — due partly to an increase in mediated communication and a decrease in the ability to read nonverbal cues of human emotion. In one study, preteens who spent five days in the woods without devices got significantly better at recognizing nonverbal emotional cues than a control group did.

While young people surely love digital devices and networks, many of them are worried about negative effects like distraction, addiction, bullying, rumor spreading, peer pressure, and lack of in-person contact. Fifty-four percent of teens think they spend too much time on their phones, while a third say they lose focus in class because they’re checking their phones. (Also, fifty-one percent of teens say their parents are distracted by their phones when having in-person conversations.) Most teens have tried to reduce the time they spend using mobile devices. Phone interdictions at school could aid student self-development, in part by providing more independence from peers, parents, and technology alike.

If we do “reflect on our phone use in society” and make student success the top priority, we can summon the collective will to realize these benefits of smartphone constraints. This means overcoming some logistical obstacles. Many administrators dread the chore of keeping phones out of schools, such as by providing individual lockers or forbidding students to bring phones. There are other alternatives to the status quo. For example, more than 600 public schools across the country have started to use pouches that temporarily disable phones in certain areas of a building. The practice is becoming more widespread in hospitals, churches, concerts, and courtrooms. Similar experiments in systemic device constraints abound.

Phone ban proponents are sometimes characterized as Luddites, as “against technology.” Not so. Rather, this call to create safe spaces for the mind is Post-Luddite, in addressing the negative externalities of device use. It declares what we stand for: helping humans to better understand the world, to engage in dialogue, show empathy, think autonomously, and act creatively. These are some values driving the Slow Media movement, which nurtures collective visions for using media in sustainable ways.

In defending young people’s right to disconnect from digital pressures, adults might even recognize that they have one, too.

Jennifer Rauch is Professor of Journalism and Communication Studies at Long Island University Brooklyn. Her book, Slow Media: Why Slow is Satisfying, Sustainable and Smart, looks at how the Slow Food movement has influenced the way people produce and consume media. You can learn more at Slow Media. An abridged version of this story appeared on OUPblog.