Why Did Schools Wait So Long to Ban Students’ Phones?

Why Did Schools Wait So Long to Ban Students’ Phones?

A modified caution sign in a street close to a school in Reutlingen, southern Germany warning people against excess phone usage while walking. (Christoph Schmidt/dpa/AFP via Getty Images)

Christian Milord
Christian Milord


Updated: 7/2/2024


It was recently reported that the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District is going to ban the use of student phones during the school day starting in 2025. It’s likely that several other districts will jump on the bandwagon. Sacramento has also shown an interest in barring phone usage during the class day, a step up from legislation passed in 2019 granting school districts the authority to limit students’ use of smartphones.
Banning students’ phones during the school day has been controversial in recent years, but at least there is a growing conversation about this critical topic. Banning anything in a free society generates debate because, sometimes, folks find ways to circumvent such bans or warnings, and sometimes, outlawing something makes it even more appealing, especially to young people.
However, what took so long for public schools to get serious about an issue that affects student learning? This genie has been out of the bottle for more than a decade. As an educator, I am quite familiar with the challenges that teachers face regarding phone distractions during class periods. Some students attempt to hide their phones under their books, on their laps, or up their sleeves while they pretend to be paying attention to course instruction.
Districts have varying policies regarding phone usage, and rules concerning student phone usage are inconsistently enforced. Some teachers have an effective policy for the non-use of phones. Students either store their phones in their backpacks or teachers have canvas rugs on the wall with pouches to store phones during class time. In secondary school, the pouches are numbered to align with the desk number or desk rows because of the different groups of students who attend each class period.
Some officials have suggested that all phones should be stored at the school office or in storage rooms with lockers. That would be too cumbersome and would demand monitoring and security. We are talking about schools that have hundreds or thousands of students who have to drop off phones in the morning and then pick them up at the end of the day. Phones could be lost, misplaced, or stolen in the student stampede.
In classes where phones aren’t allowed, common sense and observation inform us that greater learning takes place because of reduced distractions, while learning is uneven in classes where teachers lack a consistent policy. In an environment where students already utilize Chromebooks or other computers to complete assignments and read subject material, phones can add to the stimulus overload generated by excessive technology use.
Research has shown that excessive screen time has a deleterious effect on developing brains and can affect the addictive areas of the brain. Since that is the case, wouldn’t it make sense for educators and parents to be proactive in limiting the use of phones to protect the health of students? Indeed, the loss of learning generated by distance learning during the pandemic lockdowns ought to make in-person learning an urgent priority for every school. Many students tuned out amid distance learning and turned on to a virtual world of social media platforms in 2020 and 2021 instead of striving to learn as much as they could in remote mode.
Let’s not forget that public schools are funded by taxpayer dollars. In college, it’s more difficult to restrict student phone usage because students are adults and they are paying for their education. By contrast, K–12 parents are paying for their children’s education, so it’s sensible that they voice their concerns and have input on phone restriction policies in school districts. Leaving phones at home could be an option for some.
Districts and schools that implement consistent phone policies will likely have support from the teachers as long as the rules are enforced and there is accountability from top to bottom. If students don’t face consequences for phone usage, then the policy won’t be effective. Ultimately, it’s up to parents, students, and teachers to be on the same page.
In the long run, it won’t hurt students to experience giving up their phone cold turkey and turning away from their phone fixation during the school day. Over time, they will develop greater situational awareness in the real world, learn to socialize once again, and become more involved with mental and physical exertions.
If it were up to me (which it isn’t), I wouldn’t allow a youngster to even have a phone until their later teen years. They would develop normally with longer attention spans, practice healthy study habits, interact with others, exercise more, and become involved in academics and school activities. Despite the temptations of artificial intelligence, there are no shortcuts to earning a sound education.
Students could learn how to actually read a book, take notes, and be critical thinkers. They might even learn of the dangers posed by excessive technology usage and learn how to use it wisely. Breaking away from the phone obsession will also help students confront reality without falling apart. It will prepare them for the rigors of higher education and the occupational arena.

Christian Milord is an Orange County, California-based educator, mentor, USCG veteran, and writer. He earned his M.S. degree from California State University, Fullerton, where he mentors student groups and is involved with literacy programs. His interests include culture, economics, education, domestic and foreign policy, and military issues. He can be reached at cnvmilord@sbcglobal.net

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