Containing Cellphone Harm
Strategic leaders anticipate and navigate the challenges of change
BY DELANEY RUSTON/School Administrator, November 2022

Delaney Ruston, physician and creator of the “Screenager” documentaries, promotes the use of Away for the Day policies. PHOTO COURTESY OF SCREENAGERSMOVIE.COM
My daughter Tessa begged me for a smartphone when she was 12. I had several concerns, including my fear that Tessa would always want to be on it. We waited another year, and Tessa became a smartphone owner at 13. Not long after that, I spoke with one of Tessa’s teachers, who mentioned that Tessa was sitting in the back of the classroom and spending a lot of time on her phone during class. I was upset but knew I needed to stay calm when asking Tessa about this that night.

I said, “Tessa, I was speaking with one of your teachers today, and they said you seem to be on your phone a lot.”

She replied, “Mom, science, aargh, the class is so boring. I just can’t stand it.” She went on and on until finally, I needed to interrupt her.

“Tessa,” I said slowly for impact. “It was not your science teacher. It was your math teacher.”

An Irresistible Urge

Cellphones constantly distract kids at school. And their ability to resist the urge to be on their phone day in and day out, hour by hour, depends on many intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

At that time, Tessa’s school did not have a clear phone policy. Individual teachers were working hard to create and enforce their own rules, made difficult by the lack of backup they received from the school or district administration.

This incident happened shortly after the release in 2016 of “Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age,” a documentary film in which I share the journeys of families (including my own) and schools with personal technology. After the movie’s release, I met many teachers and parents from around the U.S. who also were struggling with the impact of cellphones in classrooms. Just like me, they wanted answers.

Based on my experience with my kids and talking with parents and teachers via school screenings of “Screenagers,” it was apparent that parents and teachers wanted phones curtailed, and school administrators were struggling to respond. But when I searched for what most schools were doing regarding their phone policies, I found that, shockingly, there were no data on this.

As a result, my Screenagers team and I conducted a national survey that captured responses from 1,200 middle school parents. According to these parents, 55 percent of middle schools allowed kids to carry their cellphones all day despite the fact that more than 80 percent of parents did not want their kids using their cellphones at school.

Since our study in 2017, we found just one other study about school phone policies. Conducted in 2020, research appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Pediatrics newsletter found that 97 percent of U.S. middle schools and 91 percent of high schools had some sort of cellphone policy. However, 72 percent of schools did not restrict phone use during transition periods between classes, and only 78 percent of middle and high schools restricted phones during actual class time. So while schools seem to be growing more comfortable with implementing phone restrictions, few have adopted a policy that fully removes phones during the school day.

Constructive Limits

Why have limits on cellphone use? Through the research I’ve done for the Screenagers films and my conversations with educators and families across the nation, I believe that data-driven Away for the Day policies are a highly effective way to support learning.

A few things I’ve concluded, in succinct form:

»l  Studies confirm that cellphones overpower self-control.

A study titled “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity” examined behavior by participants who turned off their phones. While they performed memory tasks, some could keep their phone with them and some had to put it in another room. Those who had the phone with them did significantly worse on the tasks. The attention and energy it takes to not check a phone seems to cause “brain drain.” The study’s findings appeared in the April 2017 issue of the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

One realm where technology measurably impacts performance is academics. A report on cellphone use abroad found that after schools in England banned mobile phones, the test scores of 16-year-old students increased by 6.4 percent, according to a March 2021 report in The Conversation. Interestingly, the impact was twice as large among low-achieving students, indicating that phones further the already significant achievement gap between students who excel in school and students who do not.

»Cellphones impact mental wellness.

Rates of depression in adolescents have been increasing. From 2005 to 2017, major depressive episodes reported by adolescents within the previous year increased by 52 percent, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a nationally representative survey of more than 600,000 U.S. adolescents and adults. A Journal of Adolescence survey of 15- and 16-year-olds across 37 countries in 2018 determined that, in comparison to 2012, twice as many tweens and teens reported feeling lonely, with girls reporting higher levels of loneliness than boys.

Youth who spend more time on social media have a greater likelihood of reporting depressive symptoms, and for middle schoolers on social media, the likelihood of reporting these symptoms is even higher. A 2022 Monitoring the Future study found in-person time with friends strongly correlates to fewer depressive symptoms. If we can create a school environment that gives kids no choice but to communicate and socialize face-to-face with their friends, teachers, counselors, coaches, principals, etc., we are taking a step in the right direction when it comes to adolescent mental health.

»Cellphone use can lead to stories of pain.

As the Screenagers team travels across the country, we meet people who are eager to share their personal struggles with technology.

Cyberbullying is raised frequently as a significant issue among school-aged children, but even more youth experience micro-emotional hits, such as being left out of group chats, seeing photos and videos of only some members of a friend group together and comparing themselves to the images their peers post on social media.

These hits consume kids throughout the school day when they have access to their phones. These seemingly small moments make it nearly impossible to focus on learning. In our film “Screenagers Next Chapter,” James Gross, director of the Stanford Psychophysiology Lab, explains what he and fellow researchers discovered in laboratory studies and in the field.

“When people try to use suppression, they can look cool, but they don’t feel cool,” says Gross, a psychologist who studies emotion and emotion regulation. “And furthermore, their thinking process is slowed down, so if you give people information while they’re suppressing, they don’t remember it as well.”

“If I’m a teenager and I’m really upset about something that a friend of mine said or something had happened at home, trying to sup-press that emotion may make me so busy cognitively that I can’t really pay attention to what the teacher is saying or what the homework is all about,” Gross says. “And if you add that up day after day, it can mean very, very different trajectories academically.”

William Dorritie, superintendent of a rural 340-student school district in the upstate New York community of Laurens, told us: “I can say without a doubt that the vast majority of student conflicts we deal with on a day-to-day basis originate from social media. Students are constantly trying to check their phones for the latest social media posts, any of which cause stress and anxiety during the school day.”

Impactful Policy

What our organization calls Away for the Day policies that are being adopted by a growing number of schools are showing some reported improvements in students’ emotional well-being and academic performance.

Matthew Burnham, a middle school principal in El Cerrito, Calif., which introduced this practice in 2016, says, “When we took the phones away, we had very little pushback from the kids, and all of those distractions and problems went away.”

Ryan Wilson, now a high school principal in Southlake, Texas, was interviewed for an upcoming Screenagers blog about starting an Away for the Day policy during his tenure as principal of Dawson Middle School, also in Southlake.

“Since [implementing the policy], we’ve continued to have our share of cellphone drama,” he says. “But it is very much reduced and often not during the confines of the school day.” Social media use still causes conflicts in school, Wilson explains, but school personnel are more able to process the situations calmly.

Enforcement Worries

So why do middle schools allow students to have phones with them all day? In many cases, school administrators tell us they want to make a change but do not have the bandwidth to create a more effective schoolwide plan restricting phone use.

Other administrative leaders say they are concerned about trying to enforce such limitations. Dorritie, who spent 14 years as a principal in Laurens before becoming superintendent in 2020, says, “To be honest, for several years I had been advocating against an Away for the Day policy, feeling that phones were so much a part of our daily lives that we would be best served by educating students on appropriate cellphone usage.”

Ultimately, Dorritie did put in place an Away for the Day policy in his district this fall when he realized how access to personal digital devices was complicating life at school for educators and students alike. “My views have certainly changed on this topic,” he says. “While I still believe in the proper use of technology to advance teaching and learning, I think that instituting a 1:1 device program where the district has control over the network is a far more effective tool than allowing students to use their cellphones during the school day.”

Dorritie expects the number of bullying reports and school counselor visits related to social media conflict will decline this school year. However, he admits he is concerned about enforcement of the new policy, while noting the school board and most parents he’s heard from have been supportive. “I would much rather enforce the new policy than have students experiencing significant emotional distress and cyberbullying through social media during school hours,” he says.

Emerging Benefits

Seeing how phones impact our students’ learning and mental health makes it clear that something needs to change. Away for the Day initiatives have greatly improved school culture in the schools that have implemented them by enabling students to connect face to face and learn with less distraction.

When parents and educators step up to support practices to keep children off of their cellphones during the school day, these initiatives can go even further.

DELANEY RUSTON is a physician in Seattle, Wash., and director/producer of “Screenagers” documentaries. Twitter: @DelaneyRuston

Additional Resources

The Screenagers staff suggests these information resources for school districts.

»Away for the Day provides information, including justifications and sample responses to common pushbacks that arise, research, policies and promotional posters about the Away for the Day initiative.
»Center for Humane Technology offers a youth toolkit relating to social media use.
»Common Sense Media presents technology recommendations for families and schools.
»iGen Research features a 7-minute video titled “iGen: The Smartphone Generation” highlighting the research of Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University who studies generational differences.