Cell Phones in Schools: Some Districts Take Steps to Eliminate Devices from Classroom While Others Balance Benefits


Wake up. Look at your phone. Go to class. Look at your phone. Start homework. Look at your phone. Go to bed. Look at your phone.

For some high school students, cell phone use is almost like blinking an eye, with the average teenager raking in up to nine hours of screen time every dayaccording to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology.

In the classroom, phones can serve as an educational tool or a pesky distraction. The latter rang true for six schools in western Pennsylvania — so much so that these schools will take steps to eliminate cell phone use in the classroom in the 2022-2023 school year.

As some students prepare to go phone-free, other districts in western Pennsylvania aim to strike a balance and empower their students.

Students at Penn Hills High School, Pittsburgh Milliones, Provident Charter School, Obama Academy, City Charter High School and Washington High School and Junior High School will be required to store their smart devices in Yondr pouches – small bags with magnetic locks that work from the same way as clothing security tags.

Since 2014, these sleeves have been used by schools, courts, concerts and comedy shows seeking to eliminate the use of screens.

In school settings, students can carry their phone in the locked pocket from class to class and unlock the pocket at the end of the day.

“We thought (the Yondr pouches) would be a way to balance the growing needs we had and provide a solution that still had some autonomy for students,” said Dara Ware Allen, CEO and Director of City Charter High School. “Phones aren’t really necessary, and what we’ve found is that they’ve created more problems than being used as a positive tool.”

City High has seen cell phone use skyrocket since the pandemic began, Allen said. With increased phone use has come an increase in distractions.

In many schools, phone-related distractions are now persistent, whether the school has strict or lenient cell phone policies. Chet Henderson, principal of Washington High School, said phones can keep high school students from being “physically and mentally present.”

As school-issued laptops and tablets become the norm, some administrators are wondering if cell phones are ever needed as an educational tool in the classroom.

Penn Hills High School started asking this question four or five years ago, said high school principal Eric Kostic.

At the time, administrators decided to work with teachers and students to encourage “opting out” of phones during class, Kostic said.

However, after a “really tough” year of phone-related distractions in 2021-22, the school decided to give Yondr a try.

“I hope students can interact with each other socially and academically and relearn how to communicate well face-to-face rather than using their phones,” Kostic said. “I guess, in summary, I hope their screen time will go down.”

Allen and Kostic said phone access can lead to harmful interactions during the school day. City High experienced students sending “spam messages” on social media during class time, Allen said.

By using Yondr, Penn Hills hopes to see a drop in high school discipline issues, as was the case at Linton Middle School. During the 2021-22 school year, the college piloted a program that required students to hand their phones to their homeroom teacher at the start of the day and pick it up at the end of the day.

Compared to the 2019-20 school year, Linton saw a 74% drop in fights, an 89% drop in bus referrals and a 57% drop in bus suspensions, the Penn Hills Superintendent said, Nancy Hines. In addition, 13 citations to the police were issued in 2019-2020 and none in 2021-2022.

Kostic said the district views the removal of cellphones from the classroom as a “contributing factor” to change.

Mobile phone problems

Kostic said he thinks some high school kids are “almost addicted” to their notifications, and Henderson described cellphones as “students’ lifeline for what’s going on.”

Gary Swanson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Allegheny Health Network, said phones – especially social media apps – are “behaviour-enhancing,” meaning they’re designed to keep users engaged.

Thirty years ago, high school students called each other on their landline phones, but the conversation ended up ending or their parents cut them off from the phone.

Now, the flow of information from social media platforms, communication apps, and websites can keep people staring at a screen for hours.

“It’s hard to set boundaries with cellphones,” Swanson said. “The more time you spend on (your phone), the more you don’t exercise, do homework, sleep or participate in family activities.”

On average, Americans check their phones 344 times a day – once every four minutes – and 47% of Americans consider themselves “addicted” to their phone, according to a 2022 study from Reviews.orga non-profit home service business.

Cell phones may be associated with anxiety, sleep deprivation, low self-esteem, cyberbullying and increased access to sexual content, violence and drugs, Swanson said.

On top of that, it’s difficult for parents to monitor their children’s online activities, Swanson added.

Other districts see the silver lining

Swanson acknowledged that cell phones have benefits, such as increased communication and creativity. He said he thought the Yondr pouches “might be helpful for some kids and more problematic for others.”

State Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Penn Hills, introduced a bill in May to ban cellphone use in all Pennsylvania schools, but not all districts in western Pennsylvania are not eager to change their policies.

At Highlands High School, the district does not recommend cell phones on campus, but neither does it ban them. Students are allowed to have cell phones and other electronic devices, but they must put them away during class.

According to the student manual, children can use their phones with a teacher’s approval, but only for quiet activities. No phone calls are allowed. Do videos of school or other students either. Headphones and headsets are also prohibited.

Offenders can have their phones taken away. Students who refuse to hand them over are reported to the administration for disciplinary action.

Hempfield Area policy allows students to use cell phones only in approved classrooms for educational purposes. Otherwise, phones should remain switched off and out of sight.

Superintendent Tammy Wolicki said most parents want their child to have access to their phone in the event of a personal or school emergency.

When Penn Hills introduced its no-phone policy, Kostic said he heard the same argument from multiple parents and described it as “valid sentiment.” But he pointed out that the district has nurses and school phones readily available.

Other districts hope to inculcate life lessons by allowing phones to varying degrees.

Upper St. Clair Deputy Superintendent Amy Pfender said the district’s policy emphasizes “responsible use” and classroom management. Some classrooms use cell phone caddies that give teachers the option to require phone storage or students the option to voluntarily store their phone.

Through its curriculum and presentations, the district also works with students and parents to promote cell phone and internet safety.

“It’s all about balance and choice,” Pfender said. “(Cellphones) are here, so we have to make good decisions as adults for the kids so they know the best way to use the device.”

Robert Gumbita, principal of Mt. Pleasant Area Senior High School, called the possibility of cell phone distractions a “learning opportunity.”

“We live in a hyper-connected world,” Gumbita said via email. “Disconnecting students does not prepare them for the world we live in today. What better place to teach students to be responsible for this use than at the school gate? »

Solve problems at home

Swanson stressed the importance for teenagers to use cellphones in moderation. Spending one to two hours on the phone a day “seems to be okay” for teenagers, he said.

Meanwhile, teens who don’t spend time on their phones may report deteriorating mental health because they feel lonely or isolated, and those who spend more than two hours have ‘increasing mental health issues’ .

Swanson described many hours of screen time as toxic.

The psychiatrist encouraged parents to set limits for their children. For example, parents could ban screens at the table, keep screens out of the bedroom, or ban social media until homework is done. He also encouraged parents to keep an eye on their children’s social media profiles.

“Teenagers don’t think the way adults do,” Swanson said. “Adults think first of the danger and then of the good things. Teenagers think of the right things first. They do not assess the risks and the positive aspects in the same way as adults.

Swanson said parents have more control over their children’s phone use than they realize. Parents probably pay for the phone and its access, he said.

“It’s not like one rule applies to all,” Swanson said. “Parents need to adapt to the maturity of their children.”

Maddie Aiken is editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact Maddie by email at maiken@triblive.com or via Twitter .


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