Should schools ban cell phones? The parents are torn.

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Julia Wilburn’s son was about to enter sixth grade when, after long discussions, she and her husband decided to give their young college student a smartphone. Over the next year, Wilburn says, she’s come to see the benefits of having a phone: It makes it easier to coordinate pickups and drops off at her downtown Nashville school; it’s fun to share funny videos with him via text message; and it’s good when his child calls home while he sleeps at his grandparents.

But when it comes to cell phones in the classroom? “I’m all for banning them,” she says. Her seventh-grader’s school doesn’t allow her to carry her phone during the school day, she says, “and I really feel like that’s the right approach.”

As students begin the new school year, a debate has reignited among educators, school district officials and parents in communities across the country. Beyond the question of whether children should have cell phones (according to the 2021 census, 43% of 8-12 year olds own a smartphone), there is the question of whether these phones belong to the school. .

Most school districts have gradually moved to limit cell phone access in school. By 2020, 77% of schools prohibited their use for non-academic purposes, according to the Department of Education. Many educators and parents have sounded the alarm over the growing body of research linking social media exposure to negative mental health impacts, and experts are warning that American children are already in the midst of a accelerating mental health crisis. A large majority of public schools have some sort of cell phone policy in place: some prohibit the use of phones during class hours, others require that they be kept in backpacks or lockers , and some provide Yondr zippered pouches that disable phones but allow students to keep handy. Efforts to restrict phone access are intensifying in some communities this year, including school districts in Maine, Pennsylvania and New York that recently banned the use of cellphones on some school campuses.

But just as some parents say it’s a good idea to keep phones out of classrooms, others are keen to ensure their children are easily reachable at all times, especially as the trauma of school shootings continues to weigh. heavily. In a community northeast of Denver, a school district recently reversed course on a proposed cellphone ban at the local high school after an outcry from parents.

“There are so many parents who worry about not being able to contact their child in the event of a mass shooting or mass emergency, so it’s very difficult for school districts to navigate,” says Brooke Shannon, a mom. in Austin who founded the nonprofit organization Wait Until 8th five years ago. The organization is urging parents to commit to waiting until at least eighth grade to give their children a smartphone. Despite heightened anxieties from parents who are haunted by the recent shootings, Shannon has seen growing interest in her group’s message.

That momentum has grown in the wake of the pandemic shutdowns, she says, as parents try to bring their kids back to a version of life that’s not so screen-centric: “As for the missing phones during the school day i think parents are facing this problem after the pandemic because they have seen with their own eyes what it was like their kids trying to do their homework and pay attention to online lessons with their phone off,” she said. “They could see what a distraction it was.”

Carin Unangst, 49, a mother of boys ages 13 and 11 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, watched the cellphone debate unfold from the perspective of her husband, a middle school teacher. He and his staff have been embroiled in an “endless fight with students and their parents over cellphones,” as well as headphones and smartwatches, she says.

Their children’s school introduced a new policy this year prohibiting cellphone use, she says, and she and her husband both hope the rule will be enforced evenly and parents can show more understanding as to why it is needed. “Having a cell phone during the school day is completely unnecessary,” she says. “I think teachers and administrators don’t get support from parents or the community on so many things, including this subject. And we wonder why [teachers] leave en masse.

As a mother of two and former high school Spanish teacher from Raleigh, North Carolina, Brenda De León, 35, says her perspective on cellphones in the classroom has changed over the years. At first, her class policy was strict: cell phones couldn’t come out, period. “But it became one of the biggest problems I had. I had to stop all the time to ask the kids to put them away. I had to contact the parents,” she says. began to allow cellphone use, but only for educational purposes, such as researching translations online. Eventually, she says, she allowed students to take out the phones, but they could not be used while De León was teaching or creating a distraction during class.

When she finally relaxed her rules, it became easier to focus on teaching rather than watching her students, she says: “That’s when the problem almost completely disappeared.”

That experience has informed how De León now thinks about it as a parent, even though his children, at just 16 months and 3 years old, are years away from owning a phone. She wants them to learn to use them with responsibility and accountability when the time comes, she says – and she also wants to be able to reach them when she needs to.

“When they are older, I wish they could have [cellphones]says De Leon. “I would definitely freak out if I couldn’t contact my child in an emergency – thinking about school shootings, that would be scary. I would therefore not agree to put my children in a school where it would be forbidden to use mobile phones.

Ken Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services consultancy, has two teenagers himself, so he identifies with the visceral urge to reach out to a child immediately, especially in times of calamity. “As a parent, do I understand the emotional part of this? Absolutely,” he says. “And I’m not rejecting it. It’s real, it’s powerful.

He says the sense of helplessness was intensified by the Robb Elementary school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers, despite numerous 911 calls from students.

Trump points out that using a phone during a school shooting can be a dangerous liability that parents might not realize: ping a text message or the vibration of an incoming call could alert a shooter to the location of students trying to hide. Staying absolutely silent in such a scenario is vital, he says, and it’s also essential that students listen to what their teachers are asking them to do, rather than staring at a screen. This is a point he has made clear to his own children, he notes.

Even after shootings, experts warn against cellphones in schools

“What makes us emotionally feeling safe may not actually make us physically safe at the time of an incident,” he says. “Obviously once someone is safe, you want that communication with parents, that connection is going to happen and needs to happen. But you have to prioritize, and the key point is knowing the situation and focus on your immediate safety first.

In his decades of work focused on school safety, he says, he’s seen the approach to changing technology change to keep pace with new challenges. He remembers a long time ago when pagers were frequently banned; just a few years ago, he recalls some schools accepting smartphones as an inevitable part of their students’ lives. “But more recently, over the past year, I’m now hearing from school administrators that these phones are then disruptors that they’re going to start banning them again,” he says. “The conversation changes, again.”

In northwest Arkansas, Rhonda Franz, 48, has two sons who attend public schools that recently banned the use of phones during the school day (her third son attends a private school where cellphones were already limited). Her boys have already told her about several classmates who had to turn in their phones to school administration as a consequence of the first offense for violating policy, she said, and she was happy to hear it.

She has long been frustrated with how distracting phones have become at school: “I hear it from my friends who are teachers,” she says. “I hear it from my kids, who of course don’t call it a ‘distraction’ and are more than happy to peek at what a friend is showing them on a phone.”

She says she is aware of concerns around safety and security, the ability to quickly connect with a student during day-to-day emergencies or a more nightmarish scenario. She knows the questions that linger in the minds of many worried parents. “But,” she says, “I’m not sure the answer is to allow students to have cellphones in the classroom.”

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