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Digital parenting: The effect of cell phones in schools

Parents are often stuck in the middle between educators who want phones out of classrooms and kids overwhelmed by distracting devices

DALLAS — Digital parents of a certain age may remember a scene in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," where a pizza delivery interrupts Mr. Hand's American History class. Apparently, Jeff Spicoli felt that dining during class wouldn't be a distraction. 

"If I'm here, and you're here, doesn't this make it our time?" he asked. "Certainly there's nothing wrong with a little feast on our time."

Mr. Hand's frustration was obvious. Not dissimilar to the frustration that today's educators are expressing over the topic of cell phones in schools. 

A Pew Research Center study demonstrates just how widespread the perceived problem has become. 80% of school principals said cell phones at school have a negative impact on academics and social development. And 90% of them support restrictions on cell phone use at school. Which is a big deal, when you consider that 95% of the teens Pew surveyed say they either have a smartphone or have access to one. 

Dr. Lori Cook with BrainHealth at UT Dallas said the mere presence of a phone can cause a substantial distraction for today's students. 

“Even if we’re not consciously thinking about our phone while it’s there, at some level our brain is essentially having to work not to think about it - I think that’s worth considering in the classroom context as well," she said. 

A University of Texas study backs that up. They split test subjects into three groups - one with their phones on the desk, another with the phone nearby, say, in a backpack. And a third group with their phones in another room. Their tests demonstrated reduced performance among the first two groups, with phones nearby, relative to the third group. And this held true even when the phones were switched off. 

Dr. Cook says there are several reasons why phones are so distracting for students:

  • A so-called dopamine "addiction" to the constant stream of likes, messages and content. 
  • The habitual act of checking a phone becomes so second nature that students do it without even thinking
  • FOMO - Fear Of Missing Out - the worry that something big is happening and it's being missed when a student isn't on their phone. 

It's easy to see how many parents feel like they're caught in the middle. 

There are obvious reasons why they might want their child to have access to a phone during the school day, often because they fear not being able to get in touch with their child in case of an emergency. 

So, how do you balance that concern with the very real issues phones present educators? It may be too difficult to put the genie back in the bottle, and ban phones altogether. Instead, Dr. Cook has some suggestions:

  • Encourage kids to leave their phones off at school, and put away.
  • Install apps that can control phone access during appropriate times
  • Ask your child's teacher if their device is becoming a distraction.
  • Model healthy phone use at home.

That last recommendation is important. Dr. Cook says if we want our kids to develop healthy relationships with their devices, we have to demonstrate that for them as well. And if those habits can be learned at home, hopefully, they'll extend to the classroom too. 

"Absolutely our kids see that and learn from that," Dr. Cook says. "I think it’s important for us to be good models and have some dedicated technology-free time to do those other things that really allow us to thrive.”

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