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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Enforce cellphone restrictions in schools

The Columbian
Published: February 8, 2024, 6:03am

Among the issues facing public education, discussions with teachers inevitably settle upon a preeminent problem — phones.

Smartphones have given students — and adults — access to the world that previously was unimaginable. They have delivered accumulated human knowledge to our fingertips, retrievable in a matter of seconds. But they also have put time-wasting distractions within reach, and those distractions all too often take precedence over the serious business of learning.

Cellphone use by students should be limited to before and after school and perhaps during lunch. And steps should be taken to keep phones in pockets or backpacks during class.

In Evergreen Public Schools, the first clause of a district policy governing cellphones states, “Telecommunication devices may be used in the classroom only under the direction of the classroom teacher and building administration.” The second clause states, “Students will not use telecommunication devices in a manner that poses a threat to academic integrity, disrupts the learning environment, or violates the privacy rights of others.”

Other local districts have similar policies. But parsing the definitions of those policies and expecting teachers to police cellphone use is difficult. As Bloomberg Opinion reports: “A recent survey found that 97 percent of U.S. adolescents used their phones at school, with most of it spent on social media, YouTube and gaming platforms.”

The lure of TikTok and other social media, or the seemingly powerful need to check text messages, is a compelling distraction. It also is a harmful one. Various studies have detailed that excessive social media use is linked to rising rates of depression and emotional distress among teenagers.

All of which lends interest to proposals in Congress. A bill introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and bipartisan co-sponsors would require districts receiving funds through the federal E-Rate program to block access to social media platforms. The E-Rate program subsidizes broadband connections for certain districts.

But only one-third of public schools qualify for the E-Rate program, limiting the scope of such legislation.

Another bill in the Senate would allocate $5 million a year in federal money to help schools pay for phone-storage equipment. But that funding is unlikely to have much reach in a nation with more than 13,000 public school districts.

Instead, solutions should fall to individual districts.

According to the Associated Press, 90 percent of U.S. public schools in the early 2010s prohibited cellphone use. By the 2015-16 school year, that had dropped to 65 percent. And the COVID-19 pandemic further enhanced students’ reliance on their phones.

As an administrator in Gig Harbor’s Peninsula School District said last year: “We came out of the pandemic and realized something has changed about students and their relationships with their devices. I’m not an expert, but it looked a lot like addiction.”

People who are experts agree with that assessment. Notably, the Peninsula district has blocked social media on its network and restricted the use of mobile devices to nonclass hours.

The fact that the move generated media attention highlights the scope of the issue. Prohibiting phone use should be routine rather than unusual.

The primary drawback to such a policy is increasing the enforcement duty of educators. But with support from administrators and parents, schools can remind students that they are in school to learn and that phones can distract from that purpose.