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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: Cellphone bans are in students’ best interest

The Columbian
Published: June 22, 2024, 6:03am

A new policy at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics should provide a template for other schools throughout Clark County.

School officials have announced that they will limit cellphone use in classrooms beginning in the fall. Students will be required to place powered-down phones in hanging pouches as they enter classrooms, keeping the devices out of reach during class time.

VSAA is a magnet school for grades six through 12 in Vancouver Public Schools, and district officials say they will consider a consistent policy for all schools. It shouldn’t require much thought, either in Vancouver or in other districts.

Cellphones are a well-documented distraction for students and a growing problem for teachers trying to maintain classroom discipline. As one national study surmises: “Cellphone use among middle and high school students is ubiquitous, starts at younger ages, and is negatively associated with children’s academic and social-emotional outcomes.” And a Harvard University survey of research notes: “Allowing phones in the classroom negatively impacts test scores and long-term learning retention.”

Those impacts should be obvious. Cellphones and social media apps are designed to create engagement that amounts to an addiction. As one group of researchers wrote for The Washington Post: “Self-control problems mean that people want to use less in the future, but when the future arrives it’s hard to follow through. For example, most smokers would like to quit smoking, but few actually succeed.”

That can be problematic in a classroom. When phones are within reach, they present a powerful obstruction to learning. The desire to surreptitiously check a text message or view the latest TikTok post competes with the need to pay attention to the lesson.

Nationally, this has resulted in a movement to limit phone access. In 2023, Florida passed a statewide ban on cellphones in K-12 schools; other states have considered similar measures. This week, the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District passed a ban.

In Washington, state Rep. Stephanie McClintock, R-Vancouver, sponsored legislation last year (House Bill 2018) that would have directed the Washington State School Directors’ Association to develop a policy restricting phone use. The bill did not advance beyond the House floor, but lawmakers should revisit the issue in next year’s session.

In the meantime, districts should take it upon themselves to enhance learning and garner support from parents.

When cellphone bans are discussed, some parents express concern about an inability to reach — or to be reached by — their children during the school day. This seems to be a specious argument; parents and children managed to navigate education for generations before the advent of cellphones, and students still will have access to their phones should an emergency arise.

Most important, districts that have implemented bans have seen positive results. As an official in Gig Harbor’s Peninsula School District told The Seattle Times: “Kids are sitting in class and talking to each other before the teacher starts talking. Or at assemblies, kids are actually sitting and having conversations with each other, and they’re talking more at lunch, even though technically they can pull their phones out.”

If academic studies have demonstrated that cellphone bans can improve academic performance, and if anecdotal evidence shows that bans can improve social connections, districts should be quick to act in the best interests of their students.