Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

North Carolina Schools Say Phone Bans Work, Despite Unpopularity

In the 2021-2022 school year, 76 percent of public schools across the nation banned non-academic use of phones during school hours. After some North Carolina schools banned their use, kids are less distracted and getting into less trouble.

When the students walk in, their smartphones are turned off at Rolesville Middle School in Rolesville, N.C.

Rolesville Middle is among a growing number of schools around North Carolina and nationally that limit student access to their phones when they’re in class. It’s part of an effort, supporters say, to reduce classroom distractions and to curb social media addiction among students.

“It’s not a ban like we’re against cellphones,” Angela Cooper, Rolesville Middle’s principal, said in an interview. “We’re just more for students being engaged and learning and lessening the impact that happens when kids are on phones on social media.

“They’re adolescents. They’re not able to be responsible enough to be on social media without close supervision, and we can’t closely supervise cellphones.”

Barring cellphones in schools isn’t popular, though, with some parents and students.

“Focusing on harsh lockdowns and harsh policies isn’t the way to do it,” Zahara Mushinge, 17, a junior at Audrey Kell High School in Charlotte, said in an interview. “It just creates a more harsh environment. Students aren’t afraid to protest.”

97 Percent of Teens Use Phones in School

Schools have been debating whether to allow students to have phones for more than two decades.

In the 2021-22 school year, 76 percent of U.S. public schools prohibited non-academic use of phones during school hours, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The ban was highest in elementary and middle schools but dropped to 43 percent in high schools.

Lots of schools have phone policies, but many don’t enforce them, according to Kim Whitman, a co-founder of the Phone-Free Schools Movement. Her group is urging schools around the nation to require students to have their phones turned off and placed the whole school day in a cell phone locker or secure pouch.

Concerns have escalated because of the rise in mental health issues and social media addiction among young people. A study released in 2023 by Common Sense Media found that 97 percent of teens used their phones during school hours.

Southern Alamance Middle School made national headlines earlier this year after it removed mirrors from bathrooms to deter students from going there to film TikTok videos.

“With a lot of our kids, sometimes it’s like ‘I need the phone as much as I need to breathe,’” Kyanna McCall, a seventh-grade teacher at Rolesville Middle, said in an interview. “Like ‘we are together, we are one.’”

Wake County, Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Durham are among the North Carolina school districts that have joined a federal class-action lawsuit accusing the owners of major social media apps of deliberately addicting young people. A similar class-action lawsuit has been filed by more than 40 states, including North Carolina, against the company that owns Facebook and Instagram.

Florida and Indiana have passed laws requiring public schools to have rules banning students from using cell phones in class. Now governors and legislators in at least a half-dozen other states are pushing their schools to follow suit — through persuasion or by law, according to Stateline.

CMS Cracks Down on Phones in Class

A state Senate bill to study cell phone use in North Carolina public schools was filed last year but never got out of committee

In the absence of state action, it’s been up to individual school districts and schools to handle the issue.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools announced before the start of this school year it would ramp up enforcement of an existing policy that says students can’t use their phones in class. CMS did not immediately respond to The News & Observer’s request for information on how the crackdown has gone.

A lot of students feel the phone rule is unnecessary, according to Joy Alabi, 18, a senior at West Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte. Alabi said banning cellphones in class won’t automatically make students pay more attention.

“Taking their phones away isn’t going to make them engaged,” Alabi, a vice president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Council, said in an interview. “They can either fall asleep, walk out of class or look at the teacher and not be engaged. You need to find curriculum and activities that will engage the students.”

Persuading Students to Turn Phones Off

In Wake County, the decision about phone access for students is left up to principals.

Cooper instituted a rule that students have to turn off their phones while on campus when she became Rolesville Middle’s principal in 2022. The ban also covers lunch, a time when some other schools let students use their phones.

Cooper said that coming back from the COVID-19 pandemic, she recognized that many students had lost the ability to socialize with their peers.

“That socialization is critical for our children, so no I don’t want them on devices during lunch,” Cooper said.

McCall, the seventh-grade teacher, said there was a lot of moaning and groaning from students when the new policy started. She said they had to persuade students that their phone was “not an extension of you.”

“When you walk in the building, your phone is no longer a thing,” McCall said. “When you walk out of the building, you now are welcome back to the world of that kind of technology, where it’s back to our phones.”

Students Less Distracted Now

Two years later, staff at Rolesville Middle say the climate has improved under the new phone rules.

“They’re much less distracted because they’re not trying to get on their phone and see who their Snapchat notification is from or who texted them,” Lauren Miron, a Rolesville Middle eighth-grade teacher, said in an interview. “They’re able to focus and minimize distractions during class.”

There are also fewer behavioral incidents now, according to Stacy Hayes, a counselor at Rolesville Middle. She said students can no longer use their phones in class to post unflattering photos and comments about classmates.

The phone ban has led to a more “safe and orderly school,” according to Cooper.

“Every child wants to be in a building where they don’t have to worry about somebody recording them or somebody sending them mean messages during the day,” Cooper added.

Winning Students Over to Phone Ban

The phone rules have won over at least some students.

“The reality of becoming trapped in technology or addicted to it is becoming more and more normal in this world,” Carter-Reid West, 13, an eighth-grader at Rolesville Middle, said in an interview. “I think not having your phone 24/7 in a learning environment not only helps you with focus but also helps you curb that addiction a little. It also just teaches you to just enjoy school in general.”

Kissmelly Mendoza, 13, a seventh-grade student, regularly checks her social media apps on her phone. But it’s ingrained in her that she has to wait until after she leaves school before she goes online.

“I have something to do, something to keep me occupied,” Mendoza said in an interview. “I’m not like ‘oh, when am I going to be on the phone?’”

Phone Access During School Shootings

One of the biggest obstacles to winning student and parent support for phone bans is the fear of possible school shootings.

Some schools allow students to keep their phones in their pockets or bookbags. Other schools require phones to be placed in lockers, lock boxes or secure pouches designed to keep students physically away from their devices.

Mushinge, the CMS student, said some of her friends couldn’t get to their phones during August’s shooting at UNC-Chapel Hill. She said her friends wanted to reach siblings who were on campus to see if they were safe.

“There are incidents where students have to become the humans that they are,” Mushigne said. “There are situations which happen outside of school.”

But Whitman of the Phone-Free Schools Movement said having a phone is an “emotional safety blanket” for parents that won’t actually make students safer.

“We know there’s a loud few that want 24/7 access to their children,” Whitman said in an interview. “But what we try to do is show that’s not best for the development of their children.

“Really right now we’re in a place where society is putting convenience before the development needs of children.”

©2024 The Charlotte Observer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
TNS delivers daily news service and syndicated premium content to more than 2,000 media and digital information publishers.
From Our Partners