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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Ban phones in school: The experiment with kids' minds has failed

Smart phones are making students less smart, writes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. Student achievement has been falling around the world as children's use of phones and social media has grown. Anxiety and depression are rising.

Photo: Cottonbro Studio/Pexels

The latest report by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows 15-year-olds in developed countries are doing much worse in math, reading and science, he writes. It's not just Covid: The downward trends started 10 to 12 years ago, just as teens were getting hooked on smart phones and social media.

PISA reported that students who spend less than one hour of their school day on digital devices score much higher in math, Thompson notes. But even those who aren't on their own phones said they're distracted by phone-checking classmates. Nearly half of students feel “nervous” or “anxious” when their devices aren't available. Those students are less satisfied with life, the survey showed. And they earn lower math scores.

We've been "running a global experiment" on "the minds of young people," and the results are in, concludes Thompson. There is "a negative relationship between device use and life satisfaction, happiness, school attention, information retention, in-class note-taking, task-switching, and student achievement." He argues it's time to ban phones in schools.

Phone-addicted teens are distracted and depressed, writes Jonathan Haidt, also in The Atlantic. Haidt's research has focused on the "international epidemic of mental illness, which started around 2012.

Schools must get serious about phone bans, he writes.

Many studies have established that, despite schools’ rules against it, students check their phone a lot during class, and that they receive and send texts if they can get away with it. Their focus is often and easily derailed by interruptions from their device. . . . Nearly 60 percent of students said that they spend more than 10 percent of class time on their phone, mostly texting. Many studies show that students who use their phone during class learn less and get lower grades.

Many schools now ban phone use during class, but rules aren't enforced consistently.

Tim Daly writes about how to ban phones without turning teachers into phone police. He thinks "schools should invest in secure, signal-blocking pouches from a company like Yondr." Students can unlock the pouches at day's end.

The policy has to be enforced consistently, he writes. Confiscating the contraband phone till the end of the day isn't enough.

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Dec 24, 2023

How about this: if you're caught with a phone during the school day it is taken from you and ceremoniously smashed with a hammer. After that, your parents may apply for compensation which, like most other bureaucratic processes, will take four to six weeks. Sure, the school would have a pay for a few phones, but that's peanuts next to all the silly stuff they waste money on now and it would actually promote smarter kids instead of the opposite.

Dec 25, 2023
Replying to

Please save the spot just behind you for me. Once, when I was developing a material that would withstand thermal shock, I would freeze a small puck, and then throw it hard on the concrete floor. Once it bounced and landed on top of the garage sized warm boxes in production. (I was doing the test in an empty aisle.)


Dec 23, 2023

Stop calling it an EXPERIMENT. There were no controlled conditions, no comparison or control groups, no random selection of subjects, no well-defined endpoints or measures of outcomes, none of the things that distinguish a scientific experiment. This whole enterprise was about as well-considered as some frat boy starting off with "Here, hold my beer," then jumping off a cliff.

Just like that other misused E-word, EDUCATION, I consider EXPERIMENT to be an instant red flag warning me that some Cloud Person is telling me it's raining while they're on my leg.

Feb 21
Replying to

True, and education experiments are generally awful since no one is going to allow their student to be in the control group while other students get the cool-new-thing (TM). That being said, however, there is plenty of EVIDENCE that cell phones are harmful, especially to teenagers. The EVIDENCE, while not collected in an actual EXPERIMENT, is pretty strong. Before and after comparisons; comparable school comparisons; etc. So what is your solution? I am with the authors of the study that cell phones need to be banned from school. I spent three years trying to convince our administration to even talk about it before I ran out of energy. Presentations, papers, evidence, studies, whatever.


JK Brown
JK Brown
Dec 23, 2023

Just saw a discussion with the founder of the Moment of Silence effort. They report good success over the last decades in schools. And don't be triggered, it is secular in that the student and/or their parents are to work out what the student would think about in that moment. Many states have mandated the moment of silence but it always depends on the implementation.

There is also this work on cognitive endurance being developed by rigorous curriculum. Again, the schooling does help this if the students are pushed on difficult material.

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