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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Ban Cell Phones in Schools

It happens every day in our DC schools. Thousands of children ages six to 18 take their seats and start scrolling. In schools across America, smartphones are pervasive in the classroom. Our Ward 7 and 8 classrooms are no different.

This has catastrophic consequences for learning.

Since the introduction of the iPhone in 2012, there has been an exponential increase in anxiety, self-harm and depression among teens, particularly girls. By now, most of us have heard a variation on the statistics. We know smartphones are bad for youth mental health. We know they facilitate bullying. But allowing them in our classrooms takes the injury of smartphones to the level of absolute insult.

Smartphones are different from the cellphones many of us first experienced.  We weren’t addicted to our flip phones, much less incessantly texting, when it required us to push a button three times to get one letter. Those cellphones were used for direct communication (calls and texting). Smartphones are used for scrollable media consumption, a verifiably addictive activity.

We know smartphones with social media are addictive because we adults can’t stop scrolling. How much more difficult is it for youth, who are less mature and have less self-control, to place limits on when and where they use their phones.

It’s taken years of active policy decisions and enforcement to keep addictive and harmful substances out of our schools, yet smartphones are allowed to walk right in. If Tracy Chapman wrote Bang, Bang, Bang today she might have called it Scroll, Scroll, Scroll.  “Give ‘em [smartphones], give ‘em candy, anything to make them think they’re happy. . .”

Smartphones should not be accessible during the school day, much less in the classroom. Teachers are quitting because they are demoralized and “tired of trying to engage students who are lost in their phones.”[1] Smartphones sap the joy out of the learning environment. They condition children to have short attention spans. Giving a teacher undivided attention and eye-contact for the length of a short lecture becomes an impossible endeavor. Students are “bored” without a phone and develop an inability to engage creatively with their environment. Educators thus aren’t just battling to teach the material, but battling to teach students that don’t care about learning.

Many schools have a “no personal device” policy on the books. But those policies often place the responsibility on the child to self-regulate. We cannot expect our children, who literally get dopamine hits from scrolling, to be able to fight this addiction alone. Furthermore, when they know they can access their phone between classes, they are less likely to stay after class to ask a question about the homework or engage with the teacher. They simply rush out to get the next hit.

If the policies are already in place, why don’t teachers enforce them? As any teacher knows, it takes the full support of parents and administrators to enforce a policy that students abhor. If an addictive substance is at their fingertips, children can’t say no. They need our help to break free.

At a recent forum for Ward 7 Councilmember, I asked the candidates if they would support a policy of “no smartphones in the classroom” for Ward 7 schools. Half the candidates said unequivocally yes, the others said no. There appeared to be some confusion on the difference between “technology” in the classroom and “personal devices” in the classroom. Technology is essential in the classroom. Personal smartphones are not.

One concerned parent approached me after the forum. He liked the idea, but was concerned about reaching his child during an emergency. I understand that sentiment.

Until a few years ago, parents did not have the expectation they could reach their child at any time of the day. However, the mechanisms and policies to reach children in an emergency are still in place. They didn’t disappear when children started carrying smartphones. The only thing that changed is child and parent expectations.

Schools must have an office phone that is answered by a person during school hours. [The charter schools my children attend answer the phone in-person]. Parents should contact the school in the case of a family emergency. If the school has an emergency, school administrators will contact the families. My children’s elementary school has gone on lockdown three times this year for active shooters in the vicinity of the school. Each time, I received a text or email from the school before I heard about the events on the news or from other parents. Unfortunately, our schools must have well-practiced policies for these terribly frequent events. Fortunately, they do. If schools don’t practice the proper procedures, the solution is not “give the kids smartphones,” but enforce and practice the proper, required procedures.

Educators want a “no smartphone” policy in schools. Children need this policy. As a parent, I want this policy and I want it enforced. I’ve lived all over the world and I can attest that our schools are more than adequate for our children’s education. Our DC educators are highly qualified, competent and well-paid. Our district government prioritizes education and our facilities are improving. But lack of phone policy enforcement makes all those tremendous benefits worth as much as a pile of old tires. Funding won’t help a child who enters a state-of-the art lab at a new STEAM campus, plops on a stool, pulls out their phone and scrolls for the rest of class. Policy enforcement will.

If Wards 7 and 8 lead the way in eliminating smartphones from classrooms, parents will drive their children to this side of the river to attend schools where kids are learning in the best possible educational and mental health environment.

Heidi Carlson and her husband have four children and live in Ward 7. Her children attend DC Public Charter Schools within two miles of her home. You can find her on X @willtravelwkids and www.willtravelwithkids.blog.

[1] A teacher in Arizona, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal.

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