Are cell phone bans in schools the answer?

Four smiling young students looking at a phone

There has been a lot of media attention paid lately to cell phone bans in classrooms, with debates about the right balance of parental authority, student autonomy, and school expectations, all aimed at improving students’ focus. 

The research isn’t clear, perhaps because there are so many variables at play when a child is in a classroom. At the Digital Wellness Lab, we believe that all or nothing approaches are unlikely to achieve the desired impacts and are ultimately unsustainable. 

There are many reasons that families want their students to have phones available and many reasons that students use their phones during class time. However, we know that our brains can’t multitask as well as we like to think they can so it’s only when phones are “out of sight, out of mind” that students can fully focus on the skills learning, social emotional development, and reflective thinking activities of the classroom. 

When asked by schools, districts, and families, we recommend the following when considering cell phone use during the school day:

1. Work across the school – home divide to identify the reasons students are bringing phones to school. 

  • A solution can only be sustainable when needs for safety, trust, and communication are understood and met in other ways. Families, students, and educators can work together to identify impactful solutions to the challenges posed by phones. 

2. Be intentional about providing a smartphone.

  • Identify the reasons your child needs a smartphone (and honestly ask whether these uses can be covered by a flip phone at least before high school). 
  • Help your child feel their concerns and opinions are being considered by having open, frank, and frequent conversations with them about how, when, and where devices can (and cannot) be used and what the consequences will be when expectations aren’t met. 
  • Be consistent about enforcing agreed upon rules and consequences.

3. Model healthy, responsible use. 

  • Avoid calling or texting your child during the school day (outside of emergencies) to support their self-regulation and independence and to model alignment with the school’s educational goals. 
  • Speak with respect in your own online and text-based engagements to model the civil behaviors we expect of our children. 
  • Model balanced digital device use, especially when spending time with family, to show the importance of in-person connections and experiences.

4. Support autonomy and self-regulation skills.

  • Whenever possible, include your child in decisions about family media use expectations. This can make your child feel heard and supported, while also developing their self-regulation skills.
  • As your child becomes more independent, be clear about appropriate shifts in expectations, including those from you. For example, more rigorous monitoring of applications added to a phone may be appropriate for a tween first getting a cell phone, but overly restrictive for an older teen who has used their phone within set rules and expectations for an extended period of time.

5. Define the goals before implementing any new tech policies. 

  • A solution aligned with a goal of reducing classroom distractions may look quite different from a solution aligned with reducing cyberbullying. 
  • When policies are implemented, clearly explain to students why these policies are being put in place, instead of instituting new rules or bans without context.

6. Integrate digital citizenship and media literacy into teaching and the curriculum. 

  • Even if their phones aren’t at their desks, students will still be online. By integrating media literacy and digital citizenship into their day-to-day education, schools can support students’ internalization of the expectations, understanding of the resources available, and strength of their critical thinking. 
  • Digital citizenship and media literacy education have been shown to have protective effects against negative body image and cyberbullying, two major concerns parents and educators share when considering cell phone policies.

At the Lab, we are working with colleagues around the world – and kids themselves – to understand how to best support young people in building their self-regulation around, and self-monitoring of, their devices and how they make them feel. Together, we can build a healthier digital ecosystem for our youth, and determining norms is a big piece of that puzzle.For more guidance on how to help young people utilize interactive media in a way that creates a positive effect on their overall mental and physical health, check out our 2023-24 Family Digital Wellness Guide.