Editorial Board

Kick Mobile Phones Out of Class

Smartphones have changed the world. They still don't belong in school.

Weapon of mass distraction.

Photograph: Patrick Hertzog/AFP/Getty Images

Of all the places where a mobile phone does not belong -- at the dinner table, near a steering wheel, in the hands of a president before 8 a.m. -- close to the top of the list is in the classroom. In the last five years, however, many large school districts in the U.S. have lifted their restrictions on smartphones. They'll come to regret it.

Research shows that mere proximity to smartphones contributes to sloppy work, reduced concentration and lower problem-solving capacity. (Phones also facilitate cheating.) College students who don't bring their mobile phones to class score a full grade higher than those who do. A study of 91 high schools in the U.K. found that students in schools that imposed strict limits on mobile phones saw test scores improve by 6.4 percent of a standard deviation -- and improvement was highest among low-achievers.

If keeping mobile phones out of the classroom has such obvious benefits, why do they remain ubiquitous? One reason is inertia: At least three-quarters of American teens own a smart phone, and educators, like parents, have concluded that it's futile to try to police texting, Snapchatting and whatever-else-ing kids do on their phones nowadays.

Some teachers also argue that smart phones can be used as learning tools, and may even help schools save on technology procurement costs. And mass-casualty school shootings have spurred parents to insist that kids have access to their phones in case of emergencies.

Certainly parents need to know whether their children are safe during a crisis. But mobile phones can impede school safety rather than enhance it, by overloading cellular networks and contributing to the spread of misinformation. That's not to mention the role mobile phones play in cyber-bullying and gang activity on school grounds -- even when they're forbidden in classrooms.

Schools that decide not to prohibit students from bringing their phones to school can still find ways to limit their use. They can require students to deposit their phones in lockers for the duration of the school day, for example -- and enforce penalties for unauthorized use. They can also provide incentives to encourage students to stay off their phones, similar to a gaming app that rewards teens for not looking at their phones while driving. To allay parents' anxieties about being unable to reach their kids, school districts should develop communications plans to provide reliable information to parents in a crisis.

It almost goes without saying that, just as surely as they once passed notes in class (does anyone still do that?) kids will find a way around the rules. Schools are perfectly free to acknowledge the difficulty of the challenge they face. What they cannot and should not do is surrender to it.

    --Editors: Romesh Ratnesar, Michael Newman.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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