Banning Cell Phones in Schools Isn’t the Answer; Here Are Better Options

Banning Cell Phones in Schools Isn’t the Answer; Here Are Better Options

Karen Gross 23/06/2024
Banning Cell Phones in Schools Isn’t the Answer; Here Are Better Options

Let’s call it the Cell Phone Conundrum.

There is a growing debate on the use of cell phones in schools as well as the massive use of social media by young people (much of which occurs on smart phones). The argument goes that both cell phone use and social media (alone or in combination) are damaging students’ learning and mental wellness.

Three recent events converged, bringing these issues to a new boiling point: (1) the decision by the LA School System to ban cell phones starting in January 2025; (2) the pleas from the Surgeon General to have warning labels for social media like those employed for cigarettes; and (3) a new book by Jonathan Haigt, suggesting that smart phones are the cause of youth mental health crises.

My reaction: Would that it were that simple. Yes, students are struggling in schools and with mental wellness. Banning cell phones and eradicating social media isn’t the answer.

In short, I have a different take on all this and a different approach to managing cellphones in schools and addressing usage (overuse and misuse) of social media among youth. (Note that adults overuse cellphones and social media but that is a different topic for a different day.) And, I am well aware of and acknowledge the difficulties of educators and youth mental wellness challenges.

Five Points:

Here are the five major points on why, in my view, banning smart phones (and the accompanying use of social media) is not wise. I include some options for what we can do instead; that’s because banning cell phones and outlawing social media (an impossibility) or providing warnings of its dangers doesn’t solve the problems youth face.

1. Banning as a concept (in thought or action) doesn’t work. We know this from prohibition; an underground market for alcohol burgeoned. (Think Joe Kennedy). We know too from our experience parenting that banning something oft-times increases the desire for and effort to get/use whatever is taken away from offspring. Ban candy and kids want it more. Ban contact with a particular friend/romantic interest and the desire for contact increases. Consider all the youth who have been denied whatever it is they seek and get to college and then they are like an unstuck drawer. They pursue what was banned in excess and that can and often is dangerous. Deadly even.

2. We know that for some students and their families, a phone creates both connection and a sense of safety. If parents know they can reach their child in an emergency, that helps them let youth have increased freedom. For kids struggling with separation (at any age or stage), a cell phone is like a security blanket; family is only a phone call away. And, if a student is in trouble and needs help for some horrific (or seemingly horrific) event, they have a means of reaching out. Even knowing they can reach out has benefits psychologically. Connection and its possibility give us comfort.

Let’s not poo- poo this reality as we do live in a complex, uncertain and fragmented world, filled with actual and perceived danger. Think about it this way: Imagine if we actually had a rule against all cell phone use in schools but youth or parents could petition for an exception. The list of exceptions would be boundless: student mental health; parental, grandparent or sibling illness; serious risk of fire or floods or earthquakes; anxiety-related rationales that have left a student uncomfortable out of the home; current events; harassment threats. The exceptions would soon overpower and outnumber those covered by the rule itself.

3. We can and should consider ways to make the cellphone and even social media an integral part of learning and social development. (The same goes for AI and ChatGPT where banning makes zero sense.) Call it “phone pedagogy,” and we can help educators and counselors to develop skills in this arena if they have not already done so.

Ponder research assignments done in class using AI on the smart phone. Picture polling activities on the smart phone. Add in data analysis and graphing and mapping. Imagine ways peers can collaborate among each other using the smart phone. Consider looking at art and foreign locations on the smart phone. Imagine translating English into many other languages on the smart phone. Reflect on dissecting actual social media as an activity in English and Social Studies and the Science courses. Think about students doing the same exercise on their phone and without their phone: say researching the background of the mayor of their town or city.

I know one graduate school professor who challenged his grad students go on a “goose chase” through print or online or other avenues to find out any information they could garner on someone the professor knew well. (The person knew about the challenge.) The professor expected they’d find nothing as he had helped this person (he thought) remove all accessible personal information. Oh was this professor wrong. The students were engaged. Some of the information was found online; other was found in print; other data was gathered through phone and in-person interviews. Smart students not just a smart phone. And yes, there was added incentive: a prize for the student who found the most information. (To be fair, I changed these facts a wee bit to protect the professor and the person researched. Let me add that the professor also wanted to test out how well he had done protecting his friend from information access. He found his answer: the professor, not the students, failed.)

Here’s the key: we need to use the cellphones FOR and TO ADVANCE educational goals. Rather than confiscate them, we must collaborate on how to use them. And yes, of course there could be an opportunity putting phones in a bin at the front of the room for some portion of the class time.

4. Ask students for their solutions. How do they want cellphones treated in school? Empower them to talk about it, reflect on differing perspectives, come up with compromises. How powerful would that be, enabling students themselves to address an issue. That would be a life lesson well worth replicating.

I am struck and always have been with the ease with which adults think they know what is best in all instances for youths. Yes, age does bring wisdom but we’d we wise to recognize that we did grow up without cellphones and those who did might have some insights we lack. I am reminded of a play I just saw written by Solstice Lauren called Dead End about how parents fail to hear their adolescent children’s voices. She’s absolutely right.

5. Banning cell phones will, I suspect, increase the growing absenteeism in schools. Youth are already skipping school post-Covid for wide ranging reasons, including disinterestedness and lack of mental wellness. Cell phone banning will likely decrease the number of students in schools, the opposite of the desired result.

We want students to be in school, not just for content learning. We want them to be there because they can work on social and emotional development. They can tap into school resources including food, counselors, social workers, coaches and peers. We gain nothing by youth dropping out or stopping out. We can gain by making schools places where we can help students in a myriad of ways. Banning cell phones undercuts the goal of re-engaging students if we work to maximize how we manage cell phone. And we know that connection and connectivity (cell phones do that as does social media) are key to managing life’s exigencies including trauma. (See Mending Education by Karen Gross and Ed Wang - forthcoming Sept. 2024 from Teachers College Press.)

Call Me; Text Me; Engage with Me

To sum up, we need to address cell phone use. I don’t have a problem with that statement. We can unravel creative, thoughtful and smart ways to address the cellphone omnipresence. Is it possible, just a thought to consider, that these mini computers could enhance, not destroy, education? For me, we need to find the positives in cellphones and social media.

There is truth to the observation that youth mental health demands our attention. What I question is the correlation between poor mental health and social media tied to cell phone use. The data aren’t yet in. Yes, social media has many downsides including meanness, false information, harassment and horrific challenges and statement that make youth feel like inadequate or like failures. Truth and fiction get intertwined.

Banning social media is like the horse that left the barn. What needs to be changed is behavior on social media. We also need to address as well the urge many sadly have to get joy from humiliating others, much of which gets regurgitated on social media. People who behave badly need to be made responsible. 

Might it be wiser, then, to consider ways to engage more equitably and decently on social media? Might we call out those who post things that are mean and mean spirited? Banning social media doesn’t solve its negative impacts, all of which will find other outlets.

Think about it this way. If water is pouring down and we prevent it from entering a certain path, it won’t stop the water from finding other pathways and tributaries, even ones we never imagined. Social media and cellphone stoppage won’t cure youth mental health issues. The problem is vastly more complex than that.

So, in that vein, call me or text me or find me on social media. I’d be happy connect and to share more. I’m easy to find, howsoever you search.

Share this article

Leave your comments

Post comment as a guest

terms and condition.
  • No comments found

Share this article

Karen Gross

Higher Education Expert

Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and  Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.

Cookies user prefences
We use cookies to ensure you to get the best experience on our website. If you decline the use of cookies, this website may not function as expected.
Accept all
Decline all
Read more
Tools used to analyze the data to measure the effectiveness of a website and to understand how it works.
Google Analytics