Cell Phones in Schools: One Student Takes a (Subtle) Stand

Cell phones in schools: to ban or not to ban? 

School administrators the world over continue to debate this question, arriving at a variety of conclusions. So, too, did the students in our Head of School's senior seminar, The Purposes of Education. In essays examining the role of cell phones in teenagers’ academic and social lives, some students argued for bans; others, for largely unfettered use. And some, like Dava '24, found themselves in between, exploring the many inherent tensions of having a super computer in your pocket, particularly as a teenager. You'll find Dava's essay below; keep reading to learn which side of the argument they determined did “marginally more good.”

The Prompt

In recent news, Great Britain has decided that it will soon ban cell phone use in schools. Write a persuasive essay exploring the pros and cons of a cell phone ban in U.S. schools. You may certainly take a stance in favor of or against a ban, but be sure to give voice to alternate arguments (even if you go on to destroy those arguments). You might consider academic impacts, social impacts, safety impacts, and or mental and physical health impacts as you describe and explore the ramifications of your stance.

The Essay

It is six o’clock on a Friday in December when a lone officeworker crosses a street in Government Center, Boston. A Boston never touched by innovation would already be pitch black: by mid-December, hours of sunlight per day approach single-digits. Instead, Government Center is awash in orange, the light from skyscraper windows diffusing onto cobbled streets once paved for horses. Once he has reached the other side of such a street, the lone officeworker pulls his phone out of his briefcase to tell his date that he’ll be a few minutes late. He is the picture of “average,” plain-looking with a button-up shirt under his jacket. He is what artists fear themselves becoming when they say they don’t want to sell their souls to corporate America, what children imagine when they think of an adult with a job. Six o’clock is rush hour in Boston, and our milquetoast protagonist is merely one of hundreds of people with places to be. The train to Copley is packed. Hundreds of bodies squished together like sardines in a can share their germs along with a collective, unspoken frustration at the older man playing Candy Crush with the sound turned all the way up. Everyone is using their phones in one way or another, of course, but it is a matter of courtesy when one is in a crowded space to do so quietly. The officeworker, for example, has not yet clicked on a funny video his sister sent of his niece—there are rules to phone use, and the young officeworker, who was fifteen when the iPhone came out, knows them better than the older man playing Candy Crush. 

When he gets to the restaurant, the officeworker will pull out his phone again, this time to scan one of the QR code menus growing increasingly popular. When he first met his current partner, he would always complain about how contactless ordering detracted from the soul of the restaurant experience. Now, he barely pays QR code menus any mind. They have joined the list of ways in which—whether we like it or not—cell phones have become a part of everyday life.

When it comes to education, most can agree that schools should seek to prepare students for the wider world. It is opinions on how this should be done, rather than that it should be, which vary. Some argue that we should only teach students content they will use as adults—that subjects like middle-English literature and calculus are useless because they won’t regularly show up in the workplace. Others argue that content like literature and calculus is important because it teaches crucial skills—a student who can analyze Shakespeare is well-positioned to think critically about the word choice of an article in the news; a student who can take the derivative of a function has most likely developed advanced problem-solving abilities. Both positions operate on the assumption that school is meant to prepare students for the wider world—they disagree only on how to accomplish that goal. So, in confronting the issue of smartphones, it makes sense to start there: what policy regarding cell phone use would best prepare students for their adult lives?

Knowing how ubiquitous phone use has become, it is easy to argue that students would be best prepared for adulthood if cell phone use was completely unregulated. In many workplace settings, excessive phone use would simply cause an indirect decrease in productivity, just as it would in a school that allowed students to regulate their own phone usage. There are, of course, cases in which phone use would be obviously unacceptable to the point that it could reasonably incur direct consequences—a coffee shop employee who regularly scrolled through Instagram instead of making lattes would most likely be fired. But in most cases, especially in workplaces that more closely resemble traditional school settings, employees are expected to manage the distraction of a cell phone on their own. In the same way that students are expected to pay attention in class and turn in their homework on time, employees are supposed to pay attention during agenda-setting meetings and resist the temptation of scrolling through Instagram when they have a report to write. If students often matriculate into environments in which they are expected to manage the distraction of cell phones on their own, wouldn’t they be best prepared by a school environment in which they learn that skill?  

This argument, while sound on its face, is less so in practice. It rests on the premise that students, if allowed to face only indirect consequences for their actions, will change their behavior. That is, that students would use their phone less often if they noticed a correlation between phone usage, distraction, and bad grades—an indirect punishment, as opposed to direct punishment (e.g., phone confiscation). This opens a broader, philosophical question: how much is it on the student to take their education seriously? If students would rather play video games than pay attention in class, should we let them? After all, any given adult technically has the option to disengage at work—would taking away a student’s ability to disengage during school teach them to engage as adults, or would it produce a generation of employees who never learned how to manage distraction on their own? 

Luckily, such a question is easier to answer when considering two yet-unacknowledged variables: the disengagement crisis in the United States, and the construction of a teenage brain. For the developing brains of children and teenagers, the correlations between bad behavior and indirect consequences are slowly learned. An adult should not need a time-out to know not to be rude to others—most adults have learned, through life experience, that kindness is more likely to produce a desirable outcome. A pattern of rudeness makes it difficult for one to find friends, and emotionally harming others triggers feelings of guilt in most developed brains. Still, in an elementary school classroom, students are directly punished for using types of unkind language that adults are often only indirectly penalized for. While teachers and parents try their best to explain to children that rudeness hurts others and damages their social prospects, we still send mean toddlers to timeout because—even if they don’t quite yet understand why good behavior is necessary—we want them to get into the habit of it. We don’t worry that directly punishing toddlers for transgressions that adults are not directly punished for will mean they then exhibit such behavior as an adult. We know that they will eventually develop a more indirect motivation to be kind, so we encourage the habit more directly until that happens. 

Phone bans can be thought of in a similar way. Ideally, students should be able to motivate themselves to do well in school—if not through an intrinsic desire to learn, then through a desire for financial success in adulthood. Data supports the idea that students who already exhibit a motivation to do well are able to manage the distraction of cell phones on their own. In Sweden, a country with relatively high student engagement, cell phone bans led to a near-negligible change in student performance (UNESCO, 2023). In the United States, high-achieving, motivated students were similarly unaffected. However, for American students designated as “low achieving,” cell phone bans were associated with a significant increase in engagement (The Hill, 2023). 

When students are not pushed by their culture to engage with school (as they are in Sweden) or especially self-motivated and well-supported (like already high-achieving students in America), they will take advantage of any available distractions. The teenage brain is predisposed to choose instant gratification over long-term satisfaction—students who perhaps in a vague, faraway manner want to do well in the workplace will often still have trouble engaging in school. Take away their ability to seek that instant gratification by removing phones from the classroom, and many students will find themselves able to pave the way for long-term satisfaction. In other words, through policies that push students to participate, schools are simply meeting students where they’re at on a developmental level. For as much as students should in theory learn to manage distraction on their own, the skills they learn when actually engaging in the classroom—“learning how to learn”—feel even more important when it comes to preparing students for their adult lives. By the time they’re old enough to work, the development of their brains, the (ideally) more engaged culture of a workplace, and the more concrete, immediate prospect of a paycheck should motivate many previously “low-achieving” students to manage distraction on their own. To get students to that workplace in the first place, though, it’s important to prioritize any measures that increase engagement.

This, in many ways, feels like a dissatisfying conclusion. Banning phones outright has its own share of undesirable consequences—for one, many schools with phone bans report an epidemic of illegal phone use. Teenagers really, desperately want to be able to use their phones during the school day—not just because they’re addicted to Instagram, but also because the Internet can be a central, positive part of teenage life. Students use their phones to communicate plans with their parents and peers, to talk with friends from all over the world, to stay updated on current events. Many students keep virtual journals, or use their phones to set helpful reminders, alarms, and schedules. There is such a thing as productive phone use, which should, if anything, be encouraged during the school day. Banning phones feels like a bandaid over a bullet hole, a way to treat the symptoms of student disengagement without having to confront the larger societal issues underneath it. But for as long as this country is unable to confront those issues, banning phones seems to do marginally more good than harm. 

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