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New York City is moving to ban phones from school. Will it work?

A teenager uses her mobile phone to access social media on Jan. 31, 2024, in New York City. The city may soon become the largest school district in the nation to ban cellphones for students.
Spencer Platt
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A teenager uses her mobile phone to access social media on Jan. 31, 2024, in New York City. The city may soon become the largest school district in the nation to ban cellphones for students.

It may soon be phones down for students in New York City, the largest school district in the nation.

David Banks, the chancellor of New York City Public Schools, announced Wednesday that he and Mayor Eric Adams plan to ban the use of phones in the coming weeks, saying phones have gone from a distraction to an addiction for many of the city’s more than 900,000 students.

“They’re not just a distraction, kids are fully addicted now to phones,” Banks said in an interview with local Fox affiliate WNYW. “And many parents will understand this because even when kids are not in school, it’s very hard to get them to even talk to each other anymore. They’re buried in their phones 20 hours out of the day.”

News of the ban — which Banks said could take effect as early as January — follows the decision by the Los Angeles Unified School District earlier this month to ban student cellphone and social media use starting next year. And it comes as parents, educators and policymakers alike voice growing concern not only about the challenges phones can present for students’ academic achievement, but also their overall well-being.

Many of those fears were underscored this month, when U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called on Congress to require a surgeon’s general warning on social media, citing the potential harm to children and teens in particular. “The warning label I'm calling for,” Murthy told NPR, “... would help make sure that parents know what we know, as public health and medical professionals, which is that there really is an association here between social media use and mental health harms for adolescents.”

With New York and Los Angeles now poised to become the two largest districts to address those concerns with new bans, here’s a look at where else bans are happening and what we know about how well they work.

How much are kids on their phone anyway?

A lot. In one study last year from the group Common Sense Media, researchers found that on a typical day, kids between the ages of 11 and 17 were on their phones for a median of almost 4 1/2 hours per day. And while some kids only used their phones for a few minutes, others averaged more than 16 hours a day.

A good share of that screen time is happening at school. The same Common Sense study found that 97% of kids use their phones during school hours for a median of about 43 minutes per day — roughly the length of one full classroom lesson.

For educators, all that distraction can make their work much, much harder. One-third of public K-12 teachers say that students being distracted by their cellphones is a “major problem,” according to a survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center. And the older students are, the worse the problem seems to get. Just 6% of elementary school teachers saw phone use as a major problem in the study, but by middle school the figure rose to 33%. By high school, some 72% of teachers said phones were a major problem.

Where are the bans happening?

The history of phone bans go back at least 35 years. In 1989, Maryland ushered in one of the first with a ban on pagers and “cellular telephones,” which lawmakers passed in part in response to a spike in illegal drug sales. But in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, many school districts began to rethink the bans in order to help students and their parents reach one another in an emergency.

In recent years, the pendulum has started to swing back in the other direction, as concerns about distracted students and the risks of social media use among children have continued to grow. Today, roughly three-quarters of schools have some form of policy prohibiting the non-academic use of cellphones in the classroom, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Individual school districts have mostly led the charge when it comes to passing limits or outright bans, but states have increasingly begun to enter the fray. Last year, Florida became the first state to crack down on phones in public schools with a law that bans student cellphone use during class time. The law also blocks access to social media for students on district Wi-Fi.

Indiana passed a similar law earlier this year, and states including Kansas, Louisiana, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Vermont are also eying what is becoming known as “phone-free schools” legislation.

In a time of deep political division, the issue is one that has garnered rare bipartisan support. In December, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, introduced a bill that would require a federal study on the effects of cellphone use in schools and the effects it is having on students’ mental health and academic achievement.

What do the bans look like in practice?

On the individual district level, bans can take many different forms. In some districts, like in Flint, Mich., phones are not allowed anywhere or at any time during the school day. Students can’t even have them with them on the bus. In other schools, like the City on a Hill Circuit Street charter school in Boston, students are forced to hand their phones to administrators at the start of the day. The devices are then stuffed into pouches and locked until dismissal time.

Other districts will allow devices during lunch or in hallways. Or they may restrict them for elementary students, but have more relaxed policies for students in middle or high school.

The bans can be tough to police, though. Students naturally don’t love them. Even many parents are opposed, saying it’s important to preserve a line of communication with their children in case of an emergency. One recent national survey found 70% of parents were opposed to completely banning phones in schools outright.

Given the resistance, policing these policies can prove challenging. Thirty percent of teachers whose schools or districts have cellphone policies say they are either very or somewhat difficult to enforce, according to Pew.

“The most successful bans tend to be the ones where there's strong leadership that's really supporting teachers in enforcing the bans,” said Liz Kolb, a clinical professor in teacher education and learning technologies at the University of Michigan. “So it really comes from leadership, being able to support teachers and also encourage teachers to not shirk the ban in order to get good favor with students or parents.”

How effective are they?

The results seem to be mixed. In one 2016 study from the U.K., researchers found that cellphone bans helped lead to increased test scores among high school students. A separate study out of Norway found that smartphone bans in middle schools were associated with higher test scores for girls, but not for boys. (The researchers guessed that’s because girls spent more time on their phones).

In other areas, the research is similarly murky. Research from Spain has shown that cellphone bans were linked to a reduction in cyberbullying. But a federal survey of U.S. principals published in 2016 found that rates of cyberbullying were actually higher in schools that had bans than they were in schools without such restrictions. (The report did not offer any explanation as to why).

There are other potential drawbacks as well. Some critics point out that banning phones in the classroom can make it more difficult for educators to engage with students about healthy ways to be using their devices.

Others argue that bans can disproportionately harm students from lower socioeconomic households — many of whom rely on their phones as their main device for accessing resources and tools because they may not have access to a laptop. Such concerns are part of the reason New York City rolled back a previous cellphone ban in 2015.

Kolb says it’s important for educators and parents alike to remember that a ban in and of itself is not a magic solution, and that for restrictions to work, schools need to right-size their policies.

“There’s both positive and potential harmful impacts,” she said. “If you ban it, it's not going to immediately cure all the cyberbullying. It's not going to immediately take a D student to an A student. There's a lot more factors involved in it. And so you have to really make sure that when you ban cellphones, that it's not just a symptom of a bigger problem that might be happening.”

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