The Question Every Parent Dreads: Can I Take My Cell Phone to School?

It’s a dilemma every parent has to face at some point: Should I let my kid take a cell phone to school? A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 65 percent of cell-owning teens bring their phones to school whether the school permits them or not. Most schools allow students to have cell phones with certain rules in place, such as turning them off during class to minimize disruption.

The thing is, we know kids don’t always play by the rules, and ultimately, it’s not down to teachers to police our children’s cell phone use. In fact, you’re likely to struggle to find a teacher who’s happy for their students to have their digital aides in tow. "As a public high school counselor by day, I can tell you from experience that cell phones are the biggest distraction to learning," licensed psychotherapist and family counselor Tom Kersting told SheKnows.

According to 2009 research out of Stanford University, humans are incapable of multitasking and attempting to do so can hinder rather than improve cognitive functioning.

"We can switch tasks, but cannot do multiple cognitive tasks simultaneously without impairing one of them to some degree," psychotherapist Dustin Weissman told SheKnows. "The vast majority of people do not possess true multitasking skills." This means if a student who is texting, playing a game or checking social media on their smartphone during a lesson isn’t grasping 100 percent of what they’re being taught.

And the same applies to social conversation. Checking their phone during or even instead of face-to-face communication with their peers does nothing to foster a child’s positive and successful social skills. "Cell phones often replace the crucial face-to-face interaction at the lunch table, etc.," said Kersting. "These are skills that need to be utilized often in order to master."

Another reason you might not want your kid to take a cell phone to school is the risk of emotional triggers. "When I have an upset student in my office, the majority of times it’s because of something they viewed on a social media site or on text messaging during the school day," said Kersting.

There’s also the compulsion to capture and share everything. "During the Parkland shooting, there were students on lockdown in their classrooms videoing the event," said Kersting. "This frightens me because if the first thing a student thinks of during a dangerous situation is to capture it on video, they are not attentive and in full defense mode."

But it’s not all bad. Overall, Weissman doesn’t believe cell phones shouldn’t be used in schools And if parents do allow their child to take a cell phone to school, it shouldn’t be until they are at least in their teen years. They should also have certain restrictions in place (e.g., for emergency calls/texts only) and they should have limited or no internet access and no social media access whatsoever. But he does recognize some benefits of cell phones in schools.

"Students can use their phone in a multitude of positive ways in school," he said. For example, teachers can use cell phones to their advantage by making parts of their lessons interactive, engaging with students through a platform they’re familiar with and experienced in (such as asking students to text responses to a real-time survey.) Students can also use their cell phones to stay organized (scheduling test dates and assignment due dates and setting reminders.) 

And for parents with concerns about their kid’s safety, a cell phone keeps lines of communication about school scheduling, changes of after-school plans and collection times and places open.

Ultimately, however, smartphones are not essential in schools — "evidenced by hundreds of years of successful education without the existence of cell phones," pointed out Weissman — and if you’re finding yourself locking horns with your kid on the issue, Weissman has some conflict-resolution tips.

  • Chat with your child about their cell phone use. "For the vast majority of students, it is part of their culture," said Weissman. "They may experience FOMO (fear of missing out) if they don’t have a smartphone at school. If their sole reason for having a cell phone is to call and/or text people (i.e., scheduling or getting picked up), consider getting the student a non-smartphone/basic mobile phone."
  • Establish an agreement in which your child has to maintain good grades to earn their smartphone use at school. "If your child can demonstrate that taking a smartphone to school is not negatively affecting their school performance or personal life or causing emotional harm, they can continue to use it," said Weissman. "If they can’t, the phone can be taken away until these requirements are met."
  • Track the time your child spends on their phone with an app like Quality Time (Android) or Moment (iPhone). "Seeing how long your child was on their phone, which app they were using and at what time, allows for a discussion, not shaming," said Weissman. "Being curious about their usage patterns is more inviting for open communication about smartphone use than if you become aggressive or critical."
  • Communicate clear expectation and consequences to your child — and follow up on the consequences when necessary, or they’re worthless.
  • If your child is struggling emotionally, cognitively or even socially, professional assistance — such as a mental health professional, physician or school counselor — may be the next proper step.

FOMO or no FOMO, your kid will survive going through school without a cell phone. But it’s a tough call to make if the school doesn’t have strict rules in place and if "everyone else has a cell phone in class" is in fact the truth. If you want your child to stay focused at school and progress academically and socially, make sure a cell phone slipped into their bag has rules and restrictions attached. (For your kid’s sake as well as their teacher’s.) 

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