Story at a glance

  • One year ago, the French government banned the use of phones in schools from preschool through ninth grade.
  • A study by the London School of Economics found that phone bans in school lead to higher test scores and that underperforming students benefited the most from the lack of distraction. 
  • Some U.S. schools already have similar rules and report better learning and engagement among students.

One of the best parts of going out to a movie these days is when everyone is asked to turn off their cell phones. The chance to focus on something without distraction for an hour and a half or more is a modern luxury.

If cell phones are that distracting for one adult, imagine their gravitational pull on roomful of tweens. It should come as no surprise that schools have started putting bans on cell phone use.

In September 2018 the French government banned the use of phones in schools from preschool through ninth grade and also from off-campus school activities, like sports events. The ban has been received with mixed responses, according to reports from NPR and Forbes. It’s easier to concentrate in class without the phones, but they were largely not allowed in classrooms anyway, and the ban is difficult to police, especially at lunch, which, at many French schools, is two hours long.

A study from the London School of Economics found that phone bans in school lead to higher test scores and that underperforming students benefited the most from the lack of distraction. Researchers from Rutgers University designed a study with students studying the same subject in the same classroom at the same time of day, only one group was allowed cell phones and laptops for non-class purposes. That group got an average of a half-letter grade lower test scores than the one without recreational tech.

Could the U.S. follow suit and nix cell phones from the classroom altogether?

Wrong Question

Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan’s Center for Growth and Human Development who specializes in part on family digital media use, thinks asking if a ban is possible is the wrong question.

“Other than to contact parents, why would schools allow ready access to cell phones in class?” Radesky says. Some students use websites like Quizlet to study up before tests, but such sites are “not essential for learning,” Radesky says.

True, you can study without a phone, but nothing distracts quite like the digital rabbit hole.

“There is so much contained in your cell phone, and so much of it designed with persuasive features that keep you coming back, that it would be really difficult to maintain concentration on the less motivating subjects in school when you have TikTok beckoning you.”

One device used in some schools, and also by some performers to nix cell phone use at shows, is a pouch developed by Yondr. You put the phone in the pouch and keep it with you. The pouch can only be opened by a special magnetic device when leaving class or the show.

Performers like Jack White, Dave Chapelle and Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, have used the Yondr pouches for phone-free performances. San Lorenzo High School in California has noticed student interaction going up as cell phones have been put down and away in Yondr pouches, CNBC reports.

Such a solution could certainly work, says Radesky, but better still is trying to encourage kids to self-regulate their phone use.

“My babysitter’s high school used the app Pocket Points to encourage self-regulation of phone use while in school. Kids earned points to spend at local stores in Ann Arbor as a reward for not checking their phone. You can have your phone with you, but you get rewarded for the self-control of not using it.”

Phone-free schools

Adweek reports that a number of individual schools — and in some cases districts — restricted cell phone use in the classroom in the 2018-19 school year.

One is the Sto-Rox district in Pennsylvania, which experiences problems with kids photographing tests, posting unflattering comments about teachers and, what was the last straw, one student posting a photo of another student in the bathroom.

At Lumen Christi High School, a Catholic school in Anchorage, Alaska, the catalyst for a phone ban was something much simpler. There were different phone use policies in each classroom and each school area, resulting in too much confusion.

“Did we really want to spend any more time on that?” was the question that prompted the no-phone rule, says Principal Brian Ross (though there are exceptions for family emergencies, special needs students and similar common-sense situations).

The policy was implemented at the start of the school year. There’s a shoe bag on the door of each home room, yes, the kind you hang on the back of your bedroom or closet door at home to keep shoes in. Each student has a pocket in which to store their phone, and there it stays for the rest of the day.

From his own observation, Ross thinks the student body — all 70 students— is “more friendly and happier to be within the school building,” and there is more engagement in the classroom.

“We know they’re focused on (their phones) at 2:31 pm,” when they get them back, but by then they’ve been able to interact with their classmates,” Ross says, directing their attention to the people they’re sitting with at lunch rather than the constant influx of news and social media.

What about emergencies?

One issue surrounding cell phone bans is concern about students having access to their phones in the event of a mass shooting. Anchorage experienced a hurricane last November, an event with the similar circumstances of widespread danger with no warning.

This was before the ban, and many kids “didn’t have their phone on them anyway, they were in their lockers or in their backpack,” when the building was evacuated. Students were able to use teachers' phones to notify their parents and landlines when they could return to the building. A message was also sent out via an app to notify parents that all students were safe. 

The school shouldn’t be the only arbiter of phone use or etiquette for kids, Ross says. Parents and grandparents should be involved in those decisions, but he does hope their experience at school has a beneficial effect on the other 17 hours a day when they’re elsewhere.

“Limits on tech are really to make room for all the important things kids need to thrive,” Radesky says, things like “sleep, time to talk with parents, time to move your body, time to rest and reflect. That last point is really important. We are so accustomed to having our attention split in several directions, but in order for our kids to be critical thinkers, we need them to reflect and synthesize, not just accept what they are fed.”

Wait ... Lunch at schools in France is two hours long?

Published on Nov 26, 2019