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Smartphones hurt kids’ education, mental health. Time for Texas schools to ban them | Opinion

Smartphones are ubiquitous, and not just among adults. Many kids have them now, even at elementary school ages — and they’re not just on TikTok at home, they’re distracted during school hours, too.

Given what we know now about the dangers phones pose to educational and social development, public schools should clamp down on kids’ use during school hours, at the elementary, middle and even high school levels. Stricter policies could facilitate learning, encourage focus and order in class, help teachers, and strengthen social interactions among students. School districts in other states, including Florida, Virginia and Pennsylvania, are already doing this. Texas should be next.

It’s been 16 years since Apple released the first iPhone and even less time since social media boomed. This acceleration of technology has been a boon to society in many ways, enabling people to find information anywhere at any time at lightning-fast speed.

Although phones are convenient tools that make communication easier, even many adults struggle to put them aside to focus on work, relationships, hobbies, or rest. The effect on kids is even more profound: A study from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group in San Francisco, found that among kids ages 11-17, smartphones are a “constant companion” and that 97% of kids use their phones during school hours.

The correlation between kids’ smartphone use and depression and anxiety is strong. From 2010 to 2016, the number of kids experiencing depression jumped 60%, according to a survey from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Suicide rates have risen among teens, and especially spiking among girls.

Many teacher-implemented classroom policies have kids using cell phones to supplement education. But the effectiveness is overrated. According to the 2023 Global Education Monitoring Report that included 14 countries, just having phones nearby distracted students from learning, causing a 20-minute delay until they can refocus again. That’s half a class period.

Data is clear: Kids are on their phones all the time, and it isn’t good for them. Since they spend three-quarters of the year in school, it’s time schools play hard ball.

Most districts in North Texas have cell phone policies for students but they vary widely. While most elementary schools have banned cell phone use, only some middle schools have. At one middle school in Keller, Fossil Hill, cell phone use is permitted for academic purposes only and teachers have a say whether kids use phones or not. Some middle schools have policies that suggest students can use phones at lunch or in class as the teacher permits, but not in bathrooms or locker rooms.

Fort Worth ISD has a district-wide policy that permits students to have cell phones, but they have to be turned off during the day unless they’re being used in class. Districts allow different campuses to create their own campus-specific policies for students and at many FWISD high schools, policies permit phone use during class as long as teachers agree and it doesn’t disrupt learning.

Arlington High School allows students “to use personally-owned mobile devices such as laptops, netbooks, tablets, iPads, iPod Touches, smartphones and eReaders, during the school day for educational purposes.”

Districts should have control over these issues, and while teachers should have leeway to run their classrooms as they see fit, this like too large an issue to leave up to individual educators. Teachers have enough work to do to enforce good behavior; if schools can take a big step toward focusing more on on facilitating learning, they should.

Mansfield ISD is one of the only, if not the only school district in Tarrant County that’s taken a hard stance on cell phone use during school hours. In July, the Mansfield board President Courtney Lackey Wilson described new guidelines to “limit distractions and disruptions to the learning process, which can frequently be caused by cell phone usage” and said outlining clear consequences for use would “empower our employees.”

This is a bold stance and a good one. By making it non-negotiable, it ends the discussions in classrooms, among teachers, and most of all, among students and parents.

Districts need firm policies that essentially ban cell phone use during the day, even at lunch and recess, so that kids continue to learn the art of social cues, create friendships, and maintain healthy interactions with others. All students, even up to high school, should keep their phones in their backpacks on silent mode.

If kids need to communicate logistics to their parents or other family members about car rides home or after school activities, the time to do it is immediately after school. In an emergency, parents should contact school officials or come to the campus. It’s a significant trade-off to make in terms of families’ scramble to get through work, school and kids’ activities, but they somehow functioned before cellphones, and devices in classrooms are just too big a problem.

There is no statewide policy about cell phones in schools, and there need not be. But there’s no reason districts and specific campuses couldn’t end this debate once and for all by getting tough on cell phones, just like they do with other potential distractions and harmful things.

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