"How can we expect kids to learn and teachers to teach when there are concerts, movies, parties, cyberbullies, shopping malls, and drug dealers in their pockets?" said the leader of a letter to the U.S. education secretary.
Dozens of parents, child advocates, and researchers this week called on U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to issue an official advisory "urging U.S. K-12 schools to adopt phone-free policies" to "promote student achievement, foster educational excellence, and ensure an equitable experience for all."
"We are a community of individuals and organizations who see an academic, mental health, and teaching crisis in every state of the union that can be improved automatically and effectually with a single strategy: removing students' personal mobile devices from our places of learning (with notable exceptions for those with special educational or medical needs)," states the Monday letter to Cardona.
"If all students are phone-free during the school day, there will be less distraction, less inappropriate content viewed, less cyberbullying, less planned fights," the letter stresses. "There will be more focus on academics, development of social skills, and students engaging with each other—in class and at extracurricular activities."
In 2019-20—the most recent data available—nearly 77% of U.S. public schools prohibited nonacademic use of cellphones or smartphones during school hours, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. However, research suggests much more needs to be done.
As the letter details:
According to the Common Sense Media report, Constant Companion: A Week in the Life of a Young Person's Smartphone Use, released this month, "Phone use during school hours is nearly universal but varies widely, reflecting a patchwork of different school policies." 97% of participants used their phones during school hours for an average of 43 minutes per day. The majority of students' time was spent on social media (32%), gaming (17%), and YouTube (26%). Mobile devices are a deterrent to learning.
Those findings are part of the growing collection of research and reporting that the signatories—including experts in early childhood development, education, psychology, and technology—highlighted to make the case for phone-free U.S. schools.
Researchers and journalists have documented differences in students' note-taking and grades as well as "alarming" misuse of personal devices, "from sexting to air-dropping compromising photos to hundreds of classmates with one click, to purchasing drugs," the letter notes. A theater teacher in Colorado toldThe Denver Post that her students are "more hesitant to take risks in class because they fear that they will be recorded, the video will be posted online, and then they will be judged."
The journalism referenced in the letter also captures positive responses to well-implemented policies, such as "phone hotels" where kids stash their devices during instruction. Public school district superintendents from Illinois to Maine toldEducation Week that students have thanked them for ending the distraction of phones in class.
Florida's newly implemented statewide ban "has been extraordinarily positive for [students'] mental health from an anecdotal perspective," one principal toldEducation Week. "Our kids are way more engaged. The apathy that we had seen from them in the last year to two years has seemed to wane. They seem more like they're waking back up to a social experience."
In addition to an official U.S. Department of Education advisory, the letter signatories urged Cardona to "encourage state boards of education to offer grants, like those offered in Massachusetts," to implement policies on the use of electronic devices.
The letter emphasizes the urgency of the situation, citing U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy's May advisory about the effects of social media on young people, which states that "at a moment when we are experiencing a national youth mental health crisis, now is the time to act swiftly and decisively to protect children and adolescents from risk of harm."
As Common Dreamsreported, 41 states and the District of Columbia on Tuesday filed a pair of lawsuits against Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, to protect children from features they argue are designed to keep users addicted to social media.
Efforts to better protect kids from social media platforms and electronic devices used to access them are far from limited to the United States. The letter points to China, England, and France's education-related phone policies as well as a recent United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report that advocates for a global ban on smartphones in schools.
"Phones are polluting our schools. They sabotage the teaching and learning processes," said Lisa Cline of the Screen Time Action Network at Fairplay for Kids, who spearheaded the letter to Cardona, in a statement on Wednesday.
"We know empirically that they are distracting—by design—so it's not a fair fight," she added. "How can we expect kids to learn and teachers to teach when there are concerts, movies, parties, cyberbullies, shopping malls, and drug dealers in their pockets?"