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Northeast Ohio Schools Ask: Should We Ban Cellphones?

Nearly 100 percent of students use their phones for an average of 42 minutes during the school day, with social media being the top reason. A study found that adolescent smartphone use during weekdays resulted in worsened mental health.

For the past two decades, since cell phones became ubiquitous in the lives of young people, teachers have competed for their students’ attention with the constant beckoning of social media feeds, text threads and mindless scrolling. But in Akron and a handful of other Northeast Ohio districts, educators say they’ve had enough of the devices and the distractions they bring.

Akron joins a rising number of districts nationwide prohibiting cell phone use in school buildings. Nearly 77 percent of U.S. schools banned the use of cell phones for non-academic purposes in 2020, up from 65 percent in 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Recent data points to a growing problem that makes the trend unsurprising. A 2023 study by Common Sense Media found that 97 percent of students use their phones for an average of 42 minutes during the school day, with social media being the top reason for students’ cell phone use.

Donald Zesiger, security director for Akron Public Schools, describes the district’s situation prior to the new device policy as “troubling”, with cell phones not only serving as a distraction from learning, but causing an increase in bullying, fights and social media threats.

“That’s what prompted us to investigate the Yondr option, and so far, we feel that it’s had a pretty positive result for a lot of reasons,” Zesiger said.

As of this year, all Akron middle and high school students are required, for the entire school day, to use Yondr pouches – small fabric bags equipped with magnetic locks that can only be opened when tapped on an unlocking base. The pouches have been widely used by comedians and musicians during shows, to prevent unauthorized recordings and to keep their audiences engaged in performances.

For students, the pouches are locked when they enter school buildings and unlocked at the end of the day. Instead of leaving phones in lockers, the pouches allow students to keep possession of their phones while prohibiting their use.

Pouches are issued to students at the beginning of each school year. There are exceptions for those with special circumstances, such as students with diabetes, who need to access their phones to monitor their glucose. Those students are still issued Yondr pouches, but instead of being equipped with a magnet, they have a Velcro closure.

Akron ran a pilot program last year in select middle and high schools to test the Yondr pouches, see how they work and gauge how well they were received by students, parents and teachers. After reviewing their findings, administrators decided to move forward with integrating a new districtwide policy this year.

Putting the Concept Into Practice

Many students initially pushed back against the cell phone ban, prompting administrators to schedule open discussions, which allowed those students to express their feelings and frustrations.

“We knew, going in, that they were going to feel like it was a punishment because they’re used to having their cell phones. And let’s face it, a lot of people live through their phones in this day and age. So, we knew that, for some students, separating them from their phones was not going to be an easy process,” Zesiger said. “We explained to them why the policy was there and that it was designed to protect them. Some dealt with it better than others, but we knew that, over time, it would get better, and it would become the new normal.”

Some parents also expressed some apprehension with the new policy, concerned with the inability to communicate with their children in the event of an emergency.

“They were upset, but I explained to them that the last thing we want is your student on their cell phone in the midst of an emergency,” Zesiger said. “They should be taking direction from the principal, the teachers and the leaders in the school to get them to a place of safety.”

However, the majority of Akron parents were supportive of the new policy, Zesiger said. And they appreciated the effect that less screen time would have on their children’s well-being beyond the classroom.

The research to support this theory is plentiful. A 2023 report by BMC Psychology found that adolescent smartphone use during weekdays results in worsened mental well-being. And for girls, social media use not only negatively impacts their mental health but is associated with a higher risk of depression.

A Canadian Medical Association Journal study reported that smartphone and social media use correlates with an increase in cyberbullying, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and sleep deprivation while decreasing cognitive control, academic performance and socioemotional function.

Eileen Anderson, director of Bioethics and Medical Humanities at Case Western Reserve University, said that for some adolescents, cell phones and social media can improve their anxiety levels and moods, but stepping away from the screen during academic instruction provides benefits to learning across the board.

“There is no doubt that, in terms of how the developing brain responds to learning, if you can engage kids, you’re going to get a richer learning experience,” she said. “When people are not distracted by their phones, there’s a huge benefit to their behavior, mental health, help seeking and cognitive development.”

A Different Approach

Beachwood City Schools requires middle school students to turn off their cell phones and stow them away in their lockers during the school day. But at the high school, each teacher has discretion over how cell phones are monitored.

Many have designated spots near their classroom doors where students put their cell phones when they enter. Others are using lock boxes or requiring students to place their phones, upside down, on top of their desks while in class.

“We’ve allowed the teachers to decide what works best for them and have the autonomy to make those decisions in their classroom, as long as the environment of learning isn’t disrupted,” said Paul Chase, principal of Beachwood High School. “Learning is the ultimate goal, and we don’t want it interrupted because of cell phones.”

Working toward that ultimate goal is part of the reason administrators chose not to ban cell phones entirely. Instead, with the introduction of what’s known as a “digital hall pass”, they’ve turned cell phones into a learning opportunity to teach digital literacy and accountability.

“Instead of taking technology away, we are actually using the technology,” Chase said. “On every classroom door, there’s a QR code. When a student needs to use the restroom, go to the clinic or see another teacher, they grab their phones, scan the QR code and it timestamps when they leave the classroom and when they return.”

The system then generates a report that allows administrators to monitor which kids are supposed to be in the halls at any given time. It also helps administrators keep track of the kids who are out of the classroom a disproportionate amount of time and open a dialogue with those students about what problems may need to be addressed.

The school’s cell phone plan isn’t without flaws, Chase said, and situations do occur when cell phones need to be confiscated.

“If kids violate the rules, they have to turn their phones into us in the morning, and they’re given them back at the end of the day,” Chase said. “Have we talked about Yondr packs? Yes, but we’re not there yet. For the most part, our system is working, and we’ve been really successful with it.”

Akron’s Results

Akron administrators are collecting data they plan to review at the end of the academic year to gauge the effect of the new policy on students’ academic achievement, mental health and behavior. However, according to Zesiger, positive changes are already emerging just a few months into the school year.

“Overall, the temperature of the schools feels different. There are fewer fights. Students are less distracted and more engaged with learning. If you go in the lunchroom, kids aren’t buried in their phones sitting around a table – they’re actually engaging with each other,” Zesiger said. “We still have people who don’t comply with the policy, but overall, I think it’s become the new normal and some of the kids have even admitted there’s less stress in their lives being able to be away from their phones during the day.”

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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