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Cell Phone Silence

All indications are that limiting cell phones is a good idea, but it isn’t easy

Last summer the French government, in a near unanimous vote, elected to ban cell phones in schools, a move that seems unlikely in this country despite there being general agreement that they are a detriment to learning and development.

Some schools have moved to strictly limit their use – and a few also have banned them, concerned about how they distract students from work and from interaction social and may pose a safety risk, while offering little benefit.

But generally, teachers and school  find it difficult to change, says Lisa Tabb, one of the founders of a group named Away for a Day, which advocates for limiting cell phone use, particularly in middle school.

“Whether intentional or not, the phone can remove us socially, intellectually, and emotionally from being present with those we are with,” she says, noting that while it creates distractions in the classroom and harms performance, the issue is bigger than that.

“A huge part of why we come to school is for this in-person socialization. In our connected environment, we learn from each other, teachers and other students. We learn to work together, take turns, listen well, speak up, question things publicly, and to be collaborative.”

She notes that research indicates 75 percent of teachers reported that the attention spans of students have decreased because of cell phones and, in another study, that students who were regularly interrupted by text messages had test scores that were 10.6 percent lower. 

The state of Wisconsin banned them in class, and teachers and administrators have reported it is paying off.

"It was a constant distraction for kids and it became is a constant discipline issue," Robin Kvalo, principal of Portage, WI,  High School, told Wisconsin Public Radio. "They are not distracted anymore. The phones are not their preoccupation. They know they can't have the phones in the classroom and there isn’t debate about it. It works.”

Tabb’s group, which has developed a film called Screenagers, reports that about 56% of middle schools allow students to carry phones all day. Some students may be required to turn them off, but that doesn’t stop the phones from being a distraction since students can power them up quickly and often are distracted just knowing that the many messages and social media information is available.

She and other experts note that there are several ways students, parents and even educators can sometimes state in the way of such policies. Some teachers and administrators say they don’t want to have to enforce a change in policy, for instance

“The reality is that when solid systems are in place, middle schools are not overburdened. We’ve heard from dozens of schools who have changed their policies to be clear and direct and there seems to be little push back.”

In other cases parents have expressed concern about students needing to be in touch in an emergency, but she points out that experts say cell phones actually make students less safe and there are ways that parents can be in touch with their children, just as they have for years.

Tabb and her group say such pushback should be expected and can be confronted with a few well-conceived approaches aimed at school staff, students and parents

“One thing to keep in mind in that while it is important that people feel heard, putting boundaries on conversations is critical,” she says. “We know that in life anxiety always speaks loudest, and yet anxiety is not always the best voice to follow.”

She says the adults should know that while they can empathize with students if a new policy is put in place, they should “maintain clear boundaries” and not “derail” the policy by either joining in complaints or to be harsh. “When enforcing rules, remember to do it warmly, but firmly. Don’t do it with angst and anger,” the group recommends

She suggests giving students a voice in the process but it is probably best to have it formulated and not have them involved initially.

Her group suggests a statement like this once a policy has been devised:

"We want you engaged in this social and schoolwide commitment by increasing your own personal awareness of your use and its impact on your learning or relationships. As the week moves forward please take mental or physical notes of the potential opportunities you may have gained by not using your phone during class time or in passing periods with friends. Also, notice what opportunities you may have lost by having to navigate the day without your phone. Next week, we want to hear your thoughtful feedback and we are setting aside time for that.”

She also notes that staff members have to be reminded that they will have to follow the rules and parents should be told there will be several benefits and the school will be providing accommodations for them to reach their children. They, too, can be given an opportunity to provide feedback.

And the policy itself can vary. Some schools ban phones from the building, others require them to be in a locker, and perhaps available at a specific time, and others they simply be off during class time, which is difficult to enforce.

The important thing, Tabb says, is that a school have a firm policy, and enforce it.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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