HUNT COLUMN: The double-edged sword called a cellphone

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, September 20, 2023

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Chances are good that everyone reading this has a cellphone and couldn’t conceive of giving it up. Cellphones make it so easy to check in with loved ones quickly via text when calling isn’t possible. They offer a comforting layer of protection should there be trouble when we’re out and about. They make it simple to have group discussions without having to meet in person. Smartphones are invaluable when we’re frantic to know a sports score or when in the midst of a heated argument about who won the seventh season of American Idol!

But when it comes to school, a cellphone can be a student’s downfall and an adult’s nightmare. When cells first became “a thing” in the high school classroom, they were mostly manageable. You could always tell when a student’s posture indicated they were texting. At the beginning of a semester, I would exaggeratedly demonstrate the various poses that let me know a student was texting. This got a few laughs, and going forward I would simply walk past an offender, hold out my hand and take the phone to my desk where it would remain until the end of the period. 

Then things got worse. Some students began to refuse to hand over their phones, class got disrupted, and the teacher had to stop and deal with a discipline issue. Eventually parents would come to the school raising Cain about how they want their children to have access to their phones at all times “in case of emergency.”

Someone I know who taught youngsters in a private school (not local) said that when parents of the Pre-K through fourth graders were having a policy meeting at the beginning of the year, the parents got extremely argumentative about the rule that those (little) children were to keep their cell phones in their book bags all day. 

“What if I need to get in touch with them?” If it’s an emergency, call the school. Otherwise, it can probably wait till the school day wraps up! Wherever you are, a potential rule requiring kids to leave their phones at home is a non-starter. Even if the policy were “no phones are to be seen during the day,” you’d need three administrators to deal with the discipline, and large numbers of students would be suspended. They are incapable of not checking their phones. Adults are no better.

One big problem is that students cannot stay engaged in the lesson when distracted by their phones. They tune out. (Try keeping up with the action on a TV show while scrolling or texting.) It’s hard to get better test scores when students are paying less attention. (I stop conversing with someone who starts texting; I know they can’t concentrate on what I’m saying. They say “I’m listening” and I’ll say, “I’ll just wait.” I have a lot of opinions about adult cell phone etiquette, but there’s not enough space here!)

A huge problem is the way phones cause major discipline problems. We all worry about bullying, but the fact is that a high percentage of bullying starts on social media and by text. The next thing you know a kid becomes depressed, scared, or anxious, or a fight is being arranged in a school bathroom between classes and lots of students will be looking on.

Some teachers have students deposit their phones in holders at the front of the room before class starts. That could help, but students will think of ways to subvert it. They’ll claim to have left their phone at home (right) or they’ll get a cheap burner as a back-up. Phones are highly problematic when it comes to school. I wish I knew what to do.