Why Schools Should Ban Cell Phones in the Classroom—and Why Parents Have to Help
New study shows it takes a young brain 20 minutes to refocus after using a cell phone in a classroom
Parents, the next time you are about to send a quick trivial text message to your students while they’re at school—maybe sitting in a classroom—stop. And think about this: it might take them only 10 seconds to respond with a thumbs-up emoji, but their brain will need 20 minutes to refocus on the algebra or history or physics lesson in front of them—20 minutes.
That was just one of the many findings in a recent report from a 14-country study by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) that prompted this headline in the Washington Post: “Schools should ban smartphones. Parents should help.” The study recommends a ban on smartphones at school for students of all ages, and says the data are unequivocal, showing that countries that enforce restrictions see improved academic performance and less bullying.
It’s a fraught debate, one that prompts frustration among educators, who say students are less focused than ever as schools struggle to enforce cell phone limitation policies, and rage from some parents, worrying about a possible shooting when they can’t get in touch, who insist they need to be able to reach their children at all times. And, perhaps surprisingly, it prompts a collective yawn from students.
In fact, students openly admit their cell phones distract them and that they focus better in school without them, says Joelle Renstrom, a senior lecturer in rhetoric at Boston University’s College of General Studies. It’s an issue she has studied for years. She even performed an experiment with her students that supports what she long suspected: Cell Phones + Classrooms = Bad Learning Environment.
BU Today spoke with Renstrom about the latest study and research.
with Joelle Renstrom
BU Today: Let me get right to the point. Do we as a society need to be better about restricting cell phones in classrooms? It seems so obvious.
Renstrom: Of course. But it is easier said than done. It’s hard to be consistent. We will always have students with some kind of reason, or a note from someone, that gives them access to technology. And then it becomes hard to explain why some people can have it and some people can’t. But student buy-in to the idea is important.
BU Today: But is getting students to agree more important than getting schools and parents to agree? Is it naive to think that students are supposed to follow the rules that we as parents and teachers set for them?
Renstrom: I have made the case before that addiction to phones is kind of like second-hand smoking. If you’re young and people around you are using it, you are going to want it, too. Every baby is like that. They want to reach for it, it’s flashing, their parents are on it all the time. Students openly acknowledge they are addicted. Their digital lives are there. But they also know there is this lack of balance in their lives.
I do think buy-in is important. But do it as an experiment. Did it work? What changes did it make? Did it make you anxious or distracted during those 50 minutes in class? I did that for years. I surveyed students for a number of semesters; how do you feel about putting your phone in a pouch? They made some predictions and said what they thought about how annoying it was. But at the end, they talked about how those predictions [played out], and whether they were better able to focus. It was very, very clear they were better able to focus. Also interestingly, not a single student left during class to get a drink or go to the bathroom. They had been 100 percent doing that just so they could use their phone.
BU Today: Should we be talking about this question, cell phones in classrooms, for all ages, middle school all the way through college? Or does age matter?
Renstrom: It’s never going to be universal. Different families, different schools. And there is, on some level, a safety issue. I do not blame parents for thinking, if there’s someone with a gun in school, I need a way to reach my kids. What if all the phones are in pouches when someone with a gun comes in? It’s crazy that we even have to consider that.
BU Today: What’s one example of something that can be changed easily?
Renstrom: Parents need to stop calling their kids during the day. Stop doing that. What you are doing is setting that kid up so that they are responding to a bot 24-7 when they shouldn’t be. If you’re a kid who gets a text from your parent in class, you are conditioned to respond and to know that [the parent] expects a response. It adds so much anxiety to people’s lives. It all just ends up in this anxiety loop.
When kids are in school, leave them alone. Think about what that phone is actually meant for. When you gave them a phone, you said it’s in case of an emergency or if you need to be picked up in a different place. Make those the parameters. If it’s just to confirm, “I’m still picking you up at 3,” then no, don’t do that. Remember when we didn’t have to confirm? There is a time and place for this, for all technology.
BU Today: This latest study, how do you think people will react to it?
Renstrom: This isn’t new. How many studies have to come out to say that cured meat is terrible and is carcinogenic. People are like, “Oh, don’t tell me what to eat. Or when to be on my phone.” This gets real contentious, real fast because telling people what’s good for them is hard.
BU Today: I can understand that—but in this case we’re not telling adults to stop being on their phones. We’re saying help get your kids off their phones in classrooms, for their health and education.
Renstrom: Studies show kids’ brains, and their gray matter, are low when they are on screens. School is prime habit-forming time. You should not sit in class within view of the professor, laughing while they are talking about World War II. There is a social appropriateness that needs to be learned.
Another habit that needs to be addressed is the misconception of multitasking. We are under this misconception we all can do it. And we can’t. You might think, I can listen to this lecture while my sister texts me. That is not supported by science or studies. It is literally derailing you. Your brain jumps off to another track and has to get back on. If you think you have not left that first track, you are wrong.
BU Today: So what next steps would you like to see?
Renstrom: I would like to see both schools and families be more assertive about this. But also to work together. If the parents are anti-smartphone policy, it doesn’t matter if the school is pro-policy. If there is a war between parents and schools, I am not sure much will happen. Some kind of intervention and restriction is better than just ripping it away from kids.
The UNESCO study found it is actually even worse for university students. We are all coming at this problem from all different ways. Pouches or banned phones. Or nothing.