Julia Wilburn’s son was about to start sixth grade when, after much discussion, she and her husband decided to get their rising middle-schooler a smartphone. In the year since, Wilburn says, she’s come to see the perks of him having a phone: It makes it easier to coordinate pickups and drop-offs at his school in downtown Nashville; it’s fun to share funny videos with him by text; and it’s nice when her kid calls home while he’s sleeping over at his grandparents’ house.
But when it comes to cellphones in school classrooms? “I’m all for banning them,” she says. Her seventh-grader’s school doesn’t allow him to carry his phone during the school day, she says, “and I definitely feel like that’s taking the right approach.”
As students begin the new school year, a debate has reignited among educators, school district officials and parents in communities across the country. Beyond the question of whether children should have cellphones at all (according to the 2021 Common Sense Census, 43 percent of 8-to-12-year-olds have their own smartphone), there is the matter of whether those phones belong at school.
Most school districts have steadily moved toward limiting cellphone access at school. By 2020, 77 percent of schools prohibited their use for nonacademic purposes, according to the Education Department. Many educators and parents alike have raised alarm about the growing body of research linking social media exposure to negative impacts on mental health, and experts warn that American children are already in the midst of an accelerating mental health crisis. A vast majority of public schools have some sort of cellphone policy in place: Some prohibit the use of phones during school hours, others require that they be kept in backpacks or lockers, and some provide zipped Yondr pouches that disable phones but allow students to keep them within reach. Efforts to restrict phone access are intensifying in some communities this year, including school districts in Maine, Pennsylvania and New York that have recently banned the use of cellphones on certain school campuses.
But just as some parents say it’s smart to keep phones out of classrooms, others feel strongly about their children being easily reachable at any time, especially when the trauma of school shootings continues to weigh heavily. In one community northeast of Denver, a school district recently reversed course on a proposed cellphone ban at the local high school after an emphatic outcry from parents.
“There are so many parents out there that are worried about not being able to get in touch with their kid in case of a shooting or a mass emergency, so it’s really tricky for school districts to navigate this,” says Brooke Shannon, a mom in Austin who founded the nonprofit Wait Until 8th five years ago. The organization urges parents to pledge to wait until at least eighth grade to give their children a smartphone. Despite the heightened anxieties of parents who are haunted by recent shootings, Shannon has seen more and more interest in her group’s message.
That momentum has grown in the aftermath of pandemic lockdowns, she says, as parents try to ease their children back into a version of life that isn’t so screen-centric: “As far as phones being away during the school day, I think parents are dialed into that issue post-pandemic, because they saw with their own eyes what it was like with their kids trying to do schoolwork and pay attention to online classes with their phones out,” she says. “They could see what a distraction that is.”
Carin Unangst, 49, a mother of 13- and 11-year-old boys in Kalamazoo, Mich., has watched the debate over cellphones play out through the perspective of her husband, a middle school teacher. He and his staff have been embroiled in a “never-ending fight with students and their parents regarding cellphones,” as well as ear buds and smartwatches, she says.
Their children’s school implemented a new policy this year prohibiting cellphone use, she says, and she and her husband are both hopeful that the rule will be uniformly enforced and that parents might show more understanding of why it is necessary. “Having a cellphone during the school day is completely unnecessary,” she says. “I think teachers and administrators get no support from parents or the community about so many things, including this subject matter. And we wonder why [teachers] are leaving in droves.”
As a mother of two and a former high school Spanish teacher in Raleigh, N.C., Brenda De León, 35, says her views on cellphones in class have shifted over the years. At first, her classroom policy was strict: Cellphones could not be out, period. “But it became one of the biggest issues I had. I had to stop all the time to ask kids to put them away. I had to contact parents,” she says. She began to allow cellphone use but only for educational purposes, like looking up translations online. Eventually, she says, she allowed students to have phones out, but they could not be used while De León was teaching or create a distraction during lessons.
When she ultimately relaxed her rules, it became easier to focus on teaching rather than policing her students, she says: “That’s when the problem almost completely disappeared.”
This experience has informed the way De León now thinks about this as a parent, even though her children, at just 16 months and 3 years old, are years away from phone ownership. She wants them to learn how to use them with responsibility and accountability when the time comes, she says — and she also wants the ability to reach them when she needs to.
“When they’re older, I’d like them to be able to have [cellphones],” De León says. “I definitely would be freaking out if I were not able to contact my child in case of an emergency — thinking about school shootings, that would be scary. So I would not be on board with putting my kids in a school where it would be prohibited to use cellphones.”
Ken Trump, president of the consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services, has two teenagers himself, so he identifies with the visceral urge to immediately reach a child, especially in the event of a calamity. “As a parent, do I understand the emotional piece of this? Absolutely,” he says. “And I’m not dismissive of it. It’s real, it’s powerful.”
He says that sense of helplessness was intensified by the massacre at Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers, despite many calls to 911 from students.
Trump emphasizes that using a phone during a school shooting can be a dangerous liability in ways parents might not realize: The ping of a text message or vibration of an incoming call could alert a shooter to the location of students who are trying to hide. Staying absolutely quiet in such a scenario is vital, he says, and it’s also essential that students be attuned to what their teachers are directing them to do, rather than looking at a screen. This is a point he’s made clear to his own children, he notes.
“What makes us emotionally feel safe may not actually make us physically safe in the moment of an incident,” he says. “Obviously, once someone is safe and secure, you want that communication with the parents, that connection is going to happen and needs to happen. But you need to prioritize, and the key point is situational awareness and focusing on your immediate safety first.”
In his decades of work focused on school security, he says, he’s seen the approach to evolving technology shift to keep pace with new challenges. He remembers, long ago, when pagers were frequently banned; only a few years ago, he recalls how some schools were accepting of smartphones as an inevitable part of their students’ lives. “But more recently, within the last year, I’m now hearing school administrators saying these phones are so disruptive that they’re going to go back to banning them,” he says. “The conversation is changing, again.”
In northwest Arkansas, 48-year-old Rhonda Franz has two sons attending public schools that recently prohibited the use of phones during the school day (her third son attends a private school where cellphones were already restricted). Her boys have already told her about several classmates who had to surrender their phones to the school administration as a first-offense consequence for breaking the policy, she says, and she was happy to hear it.
She has long been frustrated by how much of a distraction phones have become at school: “I hear it from my friends who are teachers,” she says. “I hear it from my children, who of course don’t call it a ‘distraction’ and who are more than happy to take a look at what a friend is showing them on a phone.”
She says she is aware of concerns about safety and security, about the ability to connect quickly with a student during everyday emergencies or a more nightmarish scenario. She knows the questions that linger in the minds of many worried parents. “But,” she says, “I’m not sure the answer is allowing students to have cellphones in the classroom.”