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When Schools Want to Ban Cellphones—But Parents Stand in the Way

Smartphone-carrying kids equip parents with minute-by-minute information on all kinds of behaviors and actions. They can see their kid’s exact location, clock how fast their teenager is driving, and track what they’re buying with Apple Pay. So in an era when 24/7 access to one’s children is the norm, many parents react strongly to the prospect of cellphone bans during the school day.

Consider the experience of Jose Lebron, now in his eighth year as the principal at Kensington High School in the Philadelphia school district, when he banned cellphones soon after starting his job. “Shortly after we sent out communication to students and parents [about the ban]—that’s when the uproar began. We were getting inundated with phone calls. Parents were going to their City Council; complaints got all the way up to the superintendent’s office,” he told Education Week. “You would have thought the world was going to end.”

Parents almost always cite safety concerns as their chief opposition to cellphone bans, say many school administrators, including Lebron. “They say, ‘If something happens, my child needs to get in contact with me,’” he said.

It’s an understandable reaction, given the rise of violence on school campuses in recent years and the instantaneous access that cellphones afford. The huge psychic and emotional toll of school shootings and the threat of that violence is often at the center of parents’ concerns, especially as the frequency of those events has increased somewhat in recent years. And that’s the case despite data that show that schools remain one of the safest environments for children.

Further, experts say there’s no research to back up the claim that students’ access to cellphones during a school shooting makes them any safer.

“There’s been no evidence whatsoever that having smartphones protects kids from school shootings, pedophiles, etc.,” said Michael Rich, a pediatrician and the director of the Digital Wellness Lab, a nonprofit research center at Boston Children’s Hospital.

But a growing body of research points to the very real and ubiquitous risks that cellphone use presents to students’ safety.

Heavy use of cellphones by adolescents has been linked to adverse mental health outcomes, from increasing risk of anxiety to suicidal ideation. Nearly half of children ages 10 to 17 who use social media wind up on porn sites, according to Rich. And in a recent survey of an estimated 1,300 girls ages 11 to 15 by nonprofit Common Sense Media, most respondents who reported using Snapchat or Instagram said they’d been contacted by a stranger via these social media platforms in ways that made them feel uncomfortable.

Education aimed at both parents and students offers the best defense against these threats, say experts.

But not all teachers, principals, and administrators are prepared or eager to take responsibility for this education.

In a recent nationally representative survey of teachers, principals, and district leaders conducted by the EdWeek Research Center, 1 in 3 either completely or partly disagreed with the statement that “educators should be responsible for helping students learn to use social media in ways that support their mental health and well-being.”

How parents’ smartphone behaviors impact what kids do

Viewing education on healthy smartphone use as a partnership with parents and students may ease the burden on teachers, said Liz Kolb, a digital literacy expert who says many schools tend to either involve parents or students but not both.

“We really want to try to find ways to bring parents and students together,” said Kolb, a professor of learning technologies and teacher education at the University of Michigan.

She points out that parents have social media tendencies that may be detrimental to their children’s use of smartphones and social media, however unintentionally.

How they model social media use is a big one. “When we talk to 6th graders, they’ll say: My parents are looking at their phone during dinner, and they sleep with their device, so why can’t I?”

Kolb doesn’t fault parents. “They don’t know how to create structure around it since they didn’t grow up with it,” she said.

Additionally, parents tend to be restrictive about their children’s social media use, putting locks on everything, observed Kolb. “That works in terms of reducing screen time but not in terms of creating an open conversation about what’s going on online and how they’re feeling about it,” she said.

Kolb instead recommends active monitoring, in which parents engage in social media with their children. For instance, if an adolescent child wants an Instagram account, Kolb suggests that parents sit down with their child, set up the account together, talk about the privacy structures, what is safe and unsafe, and create some parameters. “And you follow them [on Instagram],” she said. “When you just say ‘no,’ they’re going to find a workaround. Talk to the kids about why rather than just saying no.”

An effective communication plan—not student cellphones—aid safety during a crisis

Educating parents on digital wellness still may not convince them that their children are safer without their cellphones at school.

School security experts explain how using smartphones during a school crisis can make a situation worse. Ken Trump, a school security consultant for 30 years, told NPR what that increased danger can look like. For one, he said, using a smartphone in an emergency situation can distract kids from necessary actions, such as listening to directions from first responders. In addition, the sound of cellphones can alert assailants to hiding places.

Simply forbidding students to have cellphones during the school day will not assuage parents’ fears.

Prioritizing digital wellness education that includes parents and students, plus developing strong communication plans to be used in crisis situations and informing parents about them, may. And, as Kensington High Principal Lebron has discovered, parents will eventually get over the initial shock of being unable to connect instantly to their children during the school day.

“It’s gotten to the point where it’s accepted,” he said, referring to the total cellphone ban on campus. And he has no plans to reverse course.

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