Earlier this year, Florida passed a law requiring public schools statewide to ban student cellphone use during class time. The new state rules reflect an intensifying global crackdown on young people and social media.
In early October, the British government issued new guidelines recommending that student cellphone use be prohibited in schools nationwide. That followed Italy, which last year banned cellphones during lessons, and China, which two years ago barred children from taking phones to school.
A recent report from UNESCO, the United Nations’ educational and cultural agency, found that nearly one in four countries now has laws or policies banning or restricting student cellphone use in schools. Such bans typically make exceptions for students with disabilities and for educational uses approved by teachers.
Even so, the smartphone crackdowns are contentious.
Proponents say the bans prevent students from scrolling through social media and sending bullying text messages, reducing classroom distractions. Critics warn that cutting off students from their phones could disproportionately punish those with jobs or family responsibilities — and that enforcing the bans could boost harsh disciplinary measures like school suspensions.
While some schools have had a significant decrease in cyberbullying incidents, there is little rigorous research on the long-term effects of the bans.
How did the bans start?
School districts in the United States have been experimenting with phone bans for more than 30 years.
In 1989, as illegal drug sales spiked, Maryland passed a law making it illegal for students to take pagers and devices then known as “cellular telephones” to school. Violators could face fines and jail time. In the 1990s, as more students took cellphones to school, districts also instituted bans to remove the disruptive devices that kept ringing during classes.
In the early 2000s, after the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, schools began reversing their cellphone bans for safety reasons — to allow students to contact their parents during emergencies.
The bans soon surged again as schools tried to curb new classroom distractions: iPhones and popular mobile apps like Facebook. By 2010, more than 90 percent of schools prohibited student cellphone use during school hours, according to federal data.
But concerns that many students from low-income families, who could not afford their own laptops, were using cellphones for educational purposes caused some school districts to reconsider. By 2016, only two-thirds of schools banned cellphones.
Since then, warnings about compulsive social media use and cyberbullying have pushed more schools to institute bans. Last week, dozens of researchers and children’s advocates sent a letter to Secretary Miguel Cardona asking the Department of Education to issue an advisory urging schools nationwide to ban cellphones.
Why are schools banning phones?
Young people have filmed violent school fights and posted the videos on TikTok. Students have also participated in social media challenges in which they vandalized school property.
In 2021, 16 percent of U.S. high school students said they had been bullied via text message or social media platforms like Instagram over the previous year, according to a report this year from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some students are also being inundated by social media notifications. A recent report from Common Sense Media, which tracked about 200 young people with Android phones, found that participants typically received 237 cellphone notifications during the day — about one quarter of them during school hours.
Do school cellphone bans work?
National reports on school cellphone bans offer mixed results.
A federal survey of principals in 2016 found that schools with cellphone bans reported higher rates of cyberbullying than schools that allowed cellphone use. (The report did not offer an explanation as to why schools with cellphone bans reported higher cyberbullying rates.)
A study of schools in Spain, published last year, found a significant reduction in cyberbullying in two regions that had imposed school cellphone bans. In one of those regions, math and science test scores also significantly increased.
A recent study in Norway found that female students exposed to smartphone bans in middle school had higher average grades. But the bans had “no effect” on the average grades of boys, perhaps because girls spent more time on their phones, the study said.
What should schools do?
The recent UNESCO report recommended that schools proceed with caution, consider the role of new technologies in learning and base their policies on sound evidence.
The U.N. agency also suggested that exposure to digital tools like cellphones could help students develop a critical lens on emerging technologies.
“Students need to learn the risks and opportunities that come with technology, develop critical skills, and understand to live with and without technology,” UNESCO said. “Shielding students from new and innovative technology can put them at a disadvantage.”