US Schools Intensify Smartphone Bans Amid Growing Concerns Over Youth Mental Health

Featured & Cover US Schools Intensify Smartphone Bans Amid Growing Concerns Over Youth Mental Health

As a middle-school teacher, Nancy Streit knows the challenge of competing with a smartphone for a child’s attention. However, as a mother, she recognizes the necessity of these devices in emergencies. “It’s mostly the parents calling,” she explains, noting that although she prohibits phone use in her classroom, students frequently find ways around the rules.

The Los Angeles school district, where Ms. Streit teaches, recently joined the growing number of schools across the US banning smartphone use. This district, the second largest in the country, is part of a wider trend as more states and schools address children’s increasing dependency on their devices. Both New York and California, two of the most populous states, are currently considering new statewide policies on this issue. Earlier this week, California Governor Gavin Newsom called for a ban on smartphones in classrooms and expressed his intention to work with legislators on the policy. In New York, Governor Kathy Hochul has similarly advocated for a law restricting phone use in schools.

This spring, Indiana’s governor signed a law implementing a classroom ban set to begin in the autumn. These efforts mark the latest chapter in the ongoing debate over managing smartphone use in schools and come amid rising concerns about youth mental health following the pandemic.

Most US schools already have some form of phone policy. According to the US Department of Education, about 76% of schools prohibited non-academic phone use during the 2021-2022 school year. However, the latest regulations aim to go further.

Raphaela Hodges, a sixth-grade teacher at a Los Angeles school, has observed a troubling change in how children socialize. “When they’re uncomfortable, they pick up the phone,” she told the BBC. This issue has garnered rare bipartisan support, with both Republican and Democratic states pursuing similar policies. Last year, Florida implemented a state law requiring school districts to bar phones from classrooms and block social media access on school Wi-Fi. The law also mandates that schools provide instruction on the social, emotional, and physical effects of social media. Individual districts in states like Maine and Virginia are also instituting stricter rules on phone use, as are provinces in Canada, including Ontario and Alberta.

Concern about phones in schools has existed almost as long as the devices themselves, with little consensus and much controversy. Since the 1980s, there have been several attempts to ban communication devices from classrooms in the US. Early critics feared phones would distract students and be associated with the drug trade. However, the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, which resulted in 13 deaths, led some parents and schools to reassess phones as crucial communication tools during emergencies. This prompted states to relax rules, including California, which repealed a phone ban in 2002.

The debate reignited as phones became a growing distraction, an aid to cyberbullying, and a potential means for students to cheat on assignments. New York City, home to over one million students, enforced a strict ban but reversed course in 2015, allowing individual schools to set their policies.

The current wave of policies comes as experts raise concerns about student mental health and social media use. On Monday, one of America’s most senior health officials called for cigarette box-like warning labels on social media platforms. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy argued that social media increases the risk of children experiencing anxiety and depression symptoms, although research on this topic has been mixed. “You’ve got a situation where kids are not only trying to learn, but they’re simultaneously on their phones, texting their friends, replying to messages on social media, scrolling through their feeds,” Dr. Murthy told the BBC. “It makes it very difficult not only to learn, but it makes it hard in school to build relationships and friendships.”

A study published in 2019 and frequently cited by federal health offices found that adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.

The big question remains: will these policy shifts stick? Historically, schools have struggled to balance safety with limiting the allure of social media. Ken Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, emphasized that policies need strong community consensus and consistent enforcement to be effective. “There’s a lot more to it than the average parents or other person looking from afar would think. It’s a wicked problem; there are a lot of complexities to it,” said Mr. Trump.

In Los Angeles, board members voted on Tuesday to ban smartphones from the next school year. However, how this policy will be enforced remains unclear. Alyssa, an 18-year-old from Los Angeles, shared her doubts with the BBC, given the large size of many school campuses. “We have huge campuses – no one can monitor all that,” she said. “There are tons of areas where you can go and not be seen.”

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