Should children be allowed to use smartphones in class?
In the wake of another school shooting, worried parents are wondering if the phones are a distraction or a potential lifeline for their children. One of the students who called 911 in Uvalde allegedly used his teacher’s phone after the educator was shot and dropped her device. Many children in primary school have their own devices, if not with them in class.
Phone ownership is already widespread among young children, with 43% of 8- to 12-year-olds owning their own smartphone, according to the 2021 census. Often the pressure to ensure children are allowed to bring their devices into schools does not come from the students, but from their families. A phone is a way for guardians to coordinate pickups, see a child’s location throughout the day, and communicate with them in an emergency.
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The devices have become a part of everyday life for many students, despite various attempts over the years by state legislatures and cities to keep them away from classrooms. New York City had a decades-long ban on cellphones in public schools, which ended in 2015. Other countries have fared better; France banned cellphones in schools for under-15s in 2018.
Enforcement often falls to schools and teachers. They use techniques such as having students drop off devices in special holders at the start of class or asking them to store them in locked bags such as those made by Yondr. Some schools have started integrating smartphones into their lessons, though education experts say that may leave out families who can’t afford the expensive devices.
Despite the emotional benefits for adults or educational use for children, screen time and safety experts don’t recommend bringing smartphones to class, at least not without some ground rules and tips on how to way to use them in the worst case.
“The general rule is that when you’re in lockdown, educators and security people don’t want the kids on the phone because you want them to give their 100% attention to the teacher or other ‘other educators,’ said Ken Trump, president of the consulting firm. National School Safety and Security Services firm.
Trump is giving schools lockdown trainings, teaching educators the best ways to save lives during a threat like an active shooter. Teachers are trained to lock their classroom doors, turn off lights, lower blinds and move children into “hard corners” – areas at an angle that would be difficult to shoot from a doorway.
But the most important advice he gives during trainings, Trump said, is to shut up.
A phone can make unwanted noises, and in a silent lock, even a vibration can be too loud. Depending on their age, kids might also be tempted to post an ongoing incident on social media, which Trump says could both inspire other would-be gunmen seeking fame or reveal details about their location. Even the ability to call 911 isn’t a good reason, because an entire school full of people calling at once could overload a switchboard.
Educators and experts who study children and technology have their own reasons for not wanting technology on campus. Above all, a pocket computer with Internet access is a distraction during class. Getting kids to pay attention in a history lesson can be difficult even without the competition. Experts are also concerned about the role phones play in school bullying and the impact of social media on development and mental health.
Even after the shooting, one mother we spoke to decided to stick with her decision not to let her 12-year-old daughter have a phone for these reasons. The parent, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to privacy concerns for his child, is worried about gun violence and the dangers his daughter could face online. She said it’s a distraction, and she fears it will replace in-person social interactions and knows she can’t monitor many conversations or posts that might be happening through a smartphone.
She also worries about misinformation her daughter might see or read. “It’s harder to get ahead of misinformation today than it EVER has been,” she said in an online post. “We try to talk to him about the news, to share the divergent opinions and to discuss. … It’s scary to think that what she can hear and believe is the truth.
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If parents are going to give kids phones, they should come with discussions about media literacy, bullying, and instructions to completely turn off their devices during filming. Guardians should also take the time to look into old-fashioned flip phones, which don’t have many of the same features, or turn on parental controls, said Jean Twenge, a psychologist who studies children and technology and author of “iGen”.
“During school, the two main concerns are classroom distraction, how phones interfere with face-to-face conversation, for example, during lunch,” Twenge said. “Then there are all the reasons why young children’s access to social media and unrestricted internet access is a problem.”
Every situation is unique, and young children who walk or bike to school alone could be a good use case for a phone. But security and fear may not outweigh the inconvenience of phones for many families.
“Phones are not going to stop school shootings. Gun control could,” Twenge said.